British employers are continuing to pay lip service to the notion of equal pay, with just a third of big organisations completing an equal pay review in the past four years, according to a new study.
The research by the Equal Opportunities Commission has led to it calling for employers to take a new approach to closing the pay gap between men and women.
The commission's Equal Pay Review found no significant increase in the number of large organisations completing a pay review over the past 12 months.
At the current rate, the government will miss its own target of having 45 per cent of large organisations completing pay reviews by 2008, it stressed.
The least activity was in the private sector, where the gender pay gap was already nearly ten percentage points higher than in the public sector.
While 61 per cent of large public sector organisations had completed an equal pay review or had their first review in progress, just 39 per cent had done so in the private sector.
Across the economy, the pay gap was causing employers to lose out on women's skills, said the EOC.
Women working full-time were earning 17.1 per cent less per hour than men working full-time.
Women working part-time earned 38.4 per cent less than men working full-time, a pay gap which had barely shifted over the past 30 years, it warned.
In response, the EOC said Britain's 30-year-old pay and sex discrimination laws needed to be modernised to require private sector employers to take action to close the pay gap, rather than waiting until individual women took cases to tribunals.
This would mirror the new "gender equality duty" for public sector employers that the government was introducing now through its Equality Bill, said the EOC.
It has also recommended a light touch "equality check" in which employers would take an overall look to see whether they had a pay gap and to identify where action might be needed.
A full pay review would then only be needed where there was evidence of pay discrimination.
Other causes of the pay gap might include job segregation and a lack of family friendly policies, both of which have a negative impact on productivity, it said.
Another idea was the introduction of a protected "amnesty" period for employers while they took steps to change their pay systems.
Jenny Watson, EOC chair, said: "The pay gap will never close until employers check whether they have a problem and today's research shows that still too few employers do this.
"Unless the pace of change increases, the government's target on pay reviews may be missed, despite the welcome step taken by government to introduce new laws to ensure that public sector employers take action," she added.
"The biggest problem is in the private sector, where there is least action and the pay gap is nearly 10 percentage points higher than in the public sector.
"Everyone gains when employers take action to close the pay gap. Women and their families are better off, companies can be certain they have good pay systems which reward people fairly, and employers benefit from the contribution that women's skills can make to their bottom line, increasing productivity," Watson added.
"It's time for a fresh approach to make it easier for employers to check whether they have a problem and take effective action," she concluded.