Supermarket chain Sainsbury's, catering services group Compass and consumer products conglomerate Unilever are among nine of Britain's biggest companies which have pledged to review the pay and working conditions of female employees.

Legally, women have had the right to be paid the same as their male colleagues since the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970. The government's Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is concerned that the act has not translated into financial reality for many female workers, however. It revealed that in the banking and insurance industries, women receive an hourly rate of about £10 (US$14) while their male colleagues collect £18. Women working in sales are also paid less then men, by about £2 per hour.

The review is headed by the deputy chairman of the Competition Commission, Denise Kingsmill, and forms part of a government initiative to narrow the salary gap between male and female workers, who numbered 13m and 11.5m in mid-2000 respectively.