Bridging the gender gap

From April 2007, bodies across the public sector will need to engage with the most significant change in sex discrimination law in the 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act – the Gender Equality Duty (GED).

Public bodies will need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and promote equality in their employment and recruitment practices, as well as their policies and services, once the law comes into force.

There is plenty of time to prepare since the GED is currently passing through Parliament as part of the DTI’s Equality Bill, and the Government is consulting now on what the specific requirements might look like in detail.

This is a fantastic opportunity for HR managers to help improve their organisation’s overall effectiveness through employment practices.

Many organisations in the public sector are already demonstrating good practice in terms of gender equality in HR, but the GED will be an enabling tool for HR managers to help best practice become common practice.

In developing a code of practice and other practical guides to accompany the legislation, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is committed to working with organisations to make this new law workable and user-friendly.

After the introduction of the GED, public bodies will be required to publish an action plan setting out goals for sexual equality, and from 1 April 2007, they will have to publish annual reports on their progress. It will be an outcome-focused scheme and the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), the body that will succeed the current system of separate commissions covering different equality areas will have legal powers of enforcement to ensure that public bodies comply with their legal responsibilities. Until the CEHR comes into being, these powers will lie with the EOC.

Of course, the new legislation will have implications for those working in service delivery and policy-making, as well as HR professionals and individual line managers.

HR managers will play a vital part in ensuring their organisation eliminates discrimination in employment practices and actively promotes equality. For example, EOC research has shown that pregnancy discrimination is a huge issue, with nearly half of all pregnant women facing discrimination at work – that’s 200,000 women a year.

While many organisations are already looking at issues such as pregnancy discrimination, under the new law, public bodies will need to collect a broader range of information about the grades of men and women and the different areas where men and women work, along with their salaries, and the impact of the organisation’s employment practices on the gender pay gap. And this is where the new legislation will affect organisations most directly.

The gender pay gap remains at 18% for full-time workers and 40% for those working part-time, and this situation has barely changed in 30 years.
In its consultation paper, the DTI is calling for public authorities to develop and publish a policy on equal pay for men and women, including measures to ensure fair promotion and development opportunities. Regular reviews will be required to ensure these measures are working properly.

The DTI has said that effective measures will include:

  • a commitment to the principle of equal pay between women and men
  • arrangements for reviewing pay, setting out the approach to be followed (this could include a formal pay review)
  • a commitment to act on the results of a review.

However, the current outline in the consultation document needs to go further if it is to create real change. It needs to commit public bodies to take action across all three causes of the pay gap (discrimination, including pay discrimination, occupational segregation and the impact of caring responsibilities on women’s career progression). These initiatives need to include measurable outcomes – not just a process of boxes being ticked or performance goals being agreed. In other words, there needs to be an obligation to take action rather than an obligation to commit to action.

Whatever an organisation’s focus, there will also be a benefit for the bottom line, whether it is a better use of the talents of your workforce, increased efficiency, or better services.

For instance, acting to address gender inequality will help with the recruitment and retention of staff. Under the new law, an organisation might examine whether flexible working or part-time work in senior roles is widely available.

If it is not, companies are to be encouraged to consider how this might be made possible. Alternatively, are training and promotion prospects equally accessible to men and women, regardless of whether they work full- or part-time?

An example of good practice in this area is Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital Trust, which introduced flexible working and alternative shift patterns and saw a resulting drop in vacancies from 44% to less than 5%, turnover reduced by 7%, and a significant reduction in the cost of agency nursing cover.

In addition, the number of cancelled operations due to lack of nursing staff fell by 90%, productivity improved, and fewer patients were refused admission, leading to more being treated.

One of the major causes of the pay gap is occupational segregation, such as jobs in building and plumbing being overwhelmingly populated by men and childcare being dominated by women.

Again, the GED presents an opportunity to change the status quo and make a real difference – not only to individual employees, but to the quality of services. For example, Leicester City Council offers building apprenticeships intelligently tailored to suit women, along with help for childcare during training.

As a result, customer satisfaction has improved, since female council tenants are now able to request women-only teams to carry out repairs on their property. It is also well received by older people, some of the city’s ethnic minority tenants, and victims of domestic violence.

If implemented properly, the GED has the potential to replicate these outcomes across entire organisations, opening up an ever broader base of skills and expertise to all public sector bodies. As a result, there will also be wider benefits to the public from improved services and value for money, and more action to help close the pay gap.

The consultation opened on 4 October and lasts until January 2006. To make your views known in the DTI’s consultation, visit


  • The provisions of the new duty are contained within the Equality Bill that is currently before Parliament
  • On 4 October the DTI launched its consultation on the specific duties, which will run until 12 January
  • Assuming that there is no delay to the parliamentary timetable, the EOC will be issuing a Code of Practice and guidance in the autumn of 2006 with the duty coming into force from 1 April 2007
  • How much the shape of the duty may change will depend on the responses the DTI receives to its consultation

Over to you

The latest changes in the law on discrimination are likely to have an effect on everyone in the workplace. If you feel strongly about this issue, please drop us a line at

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