One in three employees does not know that it is illegal for women to be paid less than men to do the same jobs, according to a new report.

A study by the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights campaign group, has found that a culture of pay secrecy in workplaces across the UK is allowing pay discrimination to “thrive”.

To tackle the problem, the group and employment law charity YESS Law are launching a new Equal Pay Advice Service targeting low income workers to coincide with “equal pay day” on November 10. This is the day when, according to the group, women in the UK start working for free until the end of the year.

Almost 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap has narrowed but remains 8.6 per cent for full time workers, according to the Office for National Statistics. Earlier this year, government mandated reporting by UK employers with 250 or more workers showed an average pay gap of 9.8 per cent.

Much of the gap relates to a pay penalty for mothers after they have children, with hourly part-time pay levels significantly lower than full-time pay.

The Fawcett Society survey, carried out by polling company Survation, revealed that 61 per cent of workers polled said they would be uncomfortable asking a colleague how much they earn. Also, 52 per cent said their managers would “respond negatively to more openness, indicating they think it is difficult to challenge”.

The group’s new advice service will be financed through an Equal Pay Fund that was set up with a donation of backdated pay from former BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who quit her job as China editor after learning that two of her male peers were paid significantly more.

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“The fight for equal pay often pits a lone woman against a very powerful employer,” said Ms Gracie. “Without the support of other BBC Women and without great legal advice, I would have struggled to get through my own equal pay ordeal.

“Many women in other workplaces have since told me about their feelings of loneliness and helplessness in confronting pay discrimination. I feel particularly concerned about low paid women who may not be able to afford legal advice, and I hope support from our new Equal Pay Advice Service will help give them the confidence to pursue their rights.”

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society chief executive, said: “In workplaces all over the country, pay discrimination is able to thrive and is more common than people realise because of a culture of pay secrecy which persists. People do not know their basic rights and do not know what their colleagues earn.”

However, Kate Andrews, associate director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, criticised the Fawcett Society for not acknowledging improvements to women’s pay.

“Despite the gender pay gap hitting a record low this year, Equal Pay Day hasn’t budged,” she said. “It is calculated in a way that skews and inflates the data, hiding the progress that working women have made over the past 12 months.”

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