Legislation, which is enacted at national level, has the potential to alter the course of individual lives. Defining the boundaries of acceptable conduct in both public and private life, its provisions often reflect society’s values. This principle is particularly relevant to the Republic of Ireland’s Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act 1974 - the first act to address the issue of equal pay for Irish women. While it represented social progress for women workers, the act’s true value would lie in its ability to address individual cases of workplace discrimination. The proceedings of equal pay claims raised before equality officers during the 1970s and 1980s provide insight into how the legislation was interpreted and ultimately its efficacy in real-world situations. In the years following the act, ground-breaking legal cases impacting women’s rights, such as the 1976 de Burca case were ‘tales of bravery’ where claimants ‘faced the daunting prospect of taking on the State and its powerful institutions’. However, equal pay cases, while less renowned, also demonstrated instances of such bravery whereby workers confronted employers (by whom they were often still employed) to fight for their employment rights, with little guarantee of success.
In 1979 the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland requested the investigation of an equal pay claim in an IT company. A data preparation supervisor maintained that she performed like work to a male production control supervisor, and that she was, therefore, entitled to equal pay under the 1974 act. The case saw considerable dispute arise between the union and the company, particularly concerning the complex work involved and the company’s job descriptions. The company’s central contention was that the work performed by the two employees was not equal in value. They emphasised the superior skill, ‘mental effort’ and decision-making required by the male employee, arguing that it involved a greater ‘variety of functions’ than the applicant's. These included tasks such as scheduling and management duties, ‘customer liaison’ work, new project assessments and assigning job priorities. The union argued that the company’s account of the male employee’s responsibilities was ‘theoretical rather than related to reality’, highlighting key aspects whereby his actual responsibilities did not match company descriptions. They maintained that he supervised six employees and two trainees rather than the eight staff and one trainee the company described. Duties attributed to him such as setting job priorities and vetting new projects were, in fact, performed by the general manager and he was ‘not responsible for scheduling to the extent stated in the company’s submission’. Similarly, client interaction required by the production supervisor role was not, according to the union, as significant as the company insisted.
The union emphasised aspects of the claimant’s role making her work equal in value to her male comparator, including supervisory duties over four staff members working night shifts. While she was often required to stay ‘later than normal’ preparing work for these staff, she did ‘not claim overtime’. Whilst transferring data to tapes she often simultaneously completed scheduling and supervisory duties. She possessed specialist technical skills, for instance often constructing ‘a special card’, ‘a tedious and skilful job’ necessary when outside organisations were contracted with punching jobs. She trained staff directly rather than merely scheduling training as the company claimed. A key aspect of the union’s case lay in the fact that the production control supervisor’s job was previously held by a woman and assigned the same grade as the data preparation supervisor role. However, the company responded that the job had since changed, emphasising that at that time the company handled ‘a very limited number of packages’ and that there was little client interaction or scheduling required.
The equality officer noted the ‘wide difference of opinion’ existing between the company and union. While they disputed some company claims concerning the male production control supervisor’s role, they recognised his ‘overall responsibility…for all the work carried out in his section’. Ultimately, they found that his role was ‘more demanding in terms of responsibility and mental effort’ than the claimant’s. Since it was not ‘like work’ under section 3 of the 1974 act, the claimant was not entitled to equal pay. Regardless of the decision, this case demonstrates the challenges of applying equality legislation in complex, professional environments involving overlapping roles and responsibilities. Equal pay cases often saw the claimant’s skills devalued by employers. In this instance the company exaggerated the male employee’s responsibilities making it difficult for the equality officer to realistically assess the actual tasks performed. Meanwhile, the claimant’s diligence and technical and supervisory skills received a lesser focus. Nebulous management responsibilities were often cited by employers and were difficult to contest. The case thus calls into question simple assumptions that professional or highly-skilled women had less need of equal pay protections than women in less advantageous situations.
 Bacik and Rogan, Legal Cases that changed Ireland, p. 1.
 NAI, 2001/61/82, Equal Pay Recommendations of Equality Officers, EP 10/80.
Author's contact details: Suzanne Jobling (QUB) firstname.lastname@example.org
Suzanne got a special commendation at the 2021 Annual Conference