THE gender pay gap has fallen by 1% to 16.4% over the past year, official figures showed today.

The improvement followed an increase of 4% in the average hourly pay of full-time women workers to £13.43, compared with a 2.8% rise in men’s pay to £16.07.

The gender pay difference for part-time workers narrowed by 2% to 13.2%, according to today’s data from the Office for National Statistics.

Average pay for full-time workers increased by 2% to £489 a week, although the figure was higher for men (£531) than for women (£426).

The figure for annual pay increased by 2.6% to £25,800.

Men’s average weekly earnings increased by 1.8% in the year to April, compared with growth of 3.4% for women.

Average weekly earnings for part-time workers increased by 4% to £153, with women earning £156 compared with £144 for men.

One in 10 full-time workers earned less than £6.90 an hour while a similar number were paid more than £25.88 an hour, today’s figures showed.

Pay in the public sector increased by 3% to an average of £539 a week, while the comparable figure in private firms was £465, up by 1%.

Earnings for 40 to 49-year-olds were highest at an average of £551 a week, compared with £277 for 18 to 21-year-olds.

Average weekly earnings were highest in London at #627 and lowest in the North East - #436.

The gender pay gap for full-time workers was highest in the South East and lowest in Northern Ireland, according to the ONS figures.

Managers and senior officials earned the highest average weekly pay at £713, while the lowest figure was for sales and customer service occupations at £296.

Almost one in five full-timers worked paid overtime, a slight fall over the year.

There were 242,000 jobs paying less than the national minimum wage, constituting 0.9% of total UK jobs.

Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, welcomed the narrowing of the gender pay gap but expressed disappointment that the position was worsening in the private sector.

The new figures showed that the private sector was lagging behind the public sector by more than a third, said the minister.

"It’s disappointing to see the private sector falling even further behind the public sector. Most women work part-time because they juggle the important work of looking after children and older relatives.

"That’s where the discrimination really bites. It’s women working part-time who get clobbered with unequal pay.

"Today’s figures are a small step in the right direction and the Equality Bill will help women make even further progress by shining a spotlight on gender pay discrimination, workplace by workplace, so problems can be identified and action taken.

"Employers will no longer be able to rely on keeping their pay structure secret.

"We will ban secrecy clauses, which exist in nearly a quarter of workplaces, so that women can challenge unfair pay, and we’ll make public authorities report on gender pay.

"We will ask businesses to report on gender pay, but if voluntary measures do not work by 2013, we will use our legal power to require it."

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "It’s encouraging to see the gender pay gap narrowing but it is still unacceptably high. The day when men and women are paid equally looks as distant as ever.

"Women moving into part-time work will be shocked to learn that the part-time gender pay gap is 35.2%. Millions of highly skilled women are being forced to sacrifice decent wages and their careers to combine work and family life.

"It shouldn’t require a recession to make inroads into the gender pay gap. Employers are not going to close the pay gap of their own accord. The Government should introduce a range of strong measures to tackle discriminatory pay systems and occupational job segregation."

The TUC has calculated a part-time gender pay gap of 35.2% by comparing the hourly earnings of men working full-time (£16.07) with women working part-time (£10.40).

Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute said: "Whilst the CMI welcomes the new news today that the gender pay gap is narrowing, there is still an awful long way to go before any level of parity is reached.

"CMI’s recent national management salary survey found that male and female salaries are currently rising at the same rate of 4.9%.

"This may appear good news on the surface, but with the average female executive still earning £11,206 less than her male counterpart, they will never catch up if this is allowed to continue.

"Ultimately unequal pay for equal work is a disgrace."