If you and James do equal work suspect you’d want to be paid the same as him. In fact there is every chance you’d take it as a given that you were. But what happens, when over time you begin to suspect that James is earning more? The comment he made about his bonus, the amount he risked on Bitcoin, the deposit he paid for his daughter’s flat … you can’t shake the thought that something is not quite right.

You’re a smart woman; you know there could be any number of valid reasons why James appears to have more money than you. But you also know that unequal pay is a very real thing. You know that every year figures are published which show that the gender pay gap is alive and well, but there is every chance that you might be reluctant to give air to the possibility that it is happening to you.

Doing so can feel embarrassing can’t it? The thought that you might have let your employer take advantage of you can be a discomforting feeling. It makes you feel foolish, that you’ve been naïve, too trusting and possibly too quick to accept things at face value (you’re none of those things btw).

But what can you do to be sure?

You certainly don’t want to risk getting it wrong. The thought of being unfairly cast as the difficult woman might weigh on you and we have all heard the apocryphal story of the woman who enforced her equality rights and who is now unemployable (who started that rumour by the way?) These thoughts inevitably coalesce into an irresistible force of ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’ – most of us would rather ignore a problem in the hope that it resolves itself, but if the ‘Boat’ looks like this:

might not rocking it be a good thing? I am no sailor but it occurs to me that the ‘Boat’ will move better through the water if it were more equally balanced.

If the thought of James earning more than you for doing work as equally demanding as yours in anyway impacts on you and your performance, then I suggest that it would pay to start the conversation and find out if that is the case. But only you can decide… My view is that finding out if the ‘Boat’ actually needs rocking, is not the same as actually rocking it.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions about pay for the purpose of establishing whether there is pay discrimination. There is also nothing to fear in using those answers to inform your next steps. Both you and your employer stand to gain clarity and understanding by the questions and answers.

Be absolutely assured of one thing: the asking of questions in no way means that litigation follows.

So who to talk to?

  • Talking to colleagues: the law protects you while seeking pay information from your colleagues for the purpose of identifying pay discrimination. The key is to make sure your pay discussions are aimed at establishing whether or not there is pay discrimination. The protection is for both you and your colleagues. If your employer is ill-advised enough to take action against either of you, not only will it undoubtedly serve to reinforce your belief that you were right to question in the first place, you will both be entitled to bring a claims for victimisation. You can get guidance on protected pay discussions from the Equality & Human Rights Commission’s website.
  • Talking to your employer: up until April 2014 there was a statutory questionnaire that you could use to question your employer about any pay disparity between you and a man you think is doing equal work. Although the questionnaire has been abolished, you are still able to write to your employer, in the same terms as you would have done under the questionnaire process. This is a paper exercise which you may find preferable to a face to face conversation with a colleague. Acas has produced guidance to help you decide what questions to ask

If you do decide to start the conversation – prepare yourself, assess the facts you have and the assumptions you may have made. Promise yourself to keep an open mind and to hear what your employer has to say. Remind yourself that there are many genuine and lawful reasons for differences in pay. Most of all though remember all you are doing is asking questions, something you are perfectly entitled to do. And if as a result, you find out that perhaps that ‘Boat’ does need rocking – you will be best placed to give it a nudge in the right direction.