Leading from the front in the fight for equal rights

Julie Mellor has 18 months left as chair of the Equal Opportunities
Commission, and while she believes progress has been made, there is a still
long way to go to ensure women get a fair deal at work

Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, has always been
fascinated by the challenge of bringing out the potential in people.

Previously a senior HR executive with Shell and British Gas, since she was
appointed to the role four years ago Mellor has attempted to bring out the best
in UK employers by encouraging them to take equal pay and other gender equality
issues seriously.

She is pleased with the way the EOC now helps business to develop gender
policies and strategies to wipe out sex discrimination in the workplace.

"The thing I’m most proud of is the way we now work with business as a
provider of expertise," she said.

"I went into HR because the way I was brought up was to look for
people’s potential and that hasn’t changed. It’s what brought me to this job
too."

However, with another 18 months to go as EOC chair, Mellor is still unhappy
with the lack of genuine progress on equal pay.

"The achievement has been getting it back on the Government and
business agenda, but the figures are still dire and have just gone up
again."

The latest statistics show the pay gap is roughly the same as 30 years ago
at about 40 per cent. And the EOC has been attempting to combat this through
the promotion of equal pay reviews which, although compulsory across the public
sector, are still optional for private firms.

"Employers are now aware this is an issue that has to be tackled and
the Government backs our call for all companies to carry out reviews, but
that’s as far as we’ve got. The onus is now on employers to sort it out
voluntarily or there will be pressure to have legislation," she said.

In a recent poll, just 18 per cent of firms said an equal pay review was
under way, while the majority admitted having no intention of completing one.

Employers that have carried out voluntary reviews have done so with little
trouble and Mellor seems loath to force business into compliance. Instead, the
EOC has developed a range of support and advice for employers, including its
equal pay tool kit, designed to help business successfully and legally conduct
a review.

"People on the street recognise that women are paid very low wages.
Seven out of 10 beneficiaries of the minimum wage are women, so I would say we
have to deal with equal value."

Mellor is optimistic the equal pay questionnaires introduced by the
Government as part of the Employment Act last month – giving staff the right to
request pay information on a comparable worker of the opposite sex – will also
encourage employers to become more transparent in the way they pay people.

But Mellor is also concerned that occupational segregation remains an issue
and argues that it is hampering productivity.

The problem has become so serious the EOC is launching a general
investigation into modern apprenticeships, because they attract so few women to
traditionally male-dominated sectors.

"People should be able to make equal, informed choices about work – not
stereotyped choices," she explained.

The absence of significant numbers of women in these sectors can also lead
to more sinister repercussions, with more cases of sexual harassment.

"Research shows that sexual harassment is a problem where there are
very few women. Employers have got to deal with this culture and that takes
creativity," she said.

Mellor believes the problems are based on gender perceptions established at
an early age. And EOC research shows that although many young people say they
firmly believe in equality, when it comes to choosing a career the aspirations
don’t match the beliefs.

"Young people say that men can be nurses and women engineers – that’s
not even an issue. But when you ask what they want to do personally, it’s totally
different. They all tend to stick with safe options they know they can
do," she added.

Mellor believes employers and the Government must work together to shift
opinions and give young people more confidence to challenge occupational
segregation.

She has also called for employers and schools to work together to provide
more practical work experience so young people can make informed career
choices.

Another area of concern for the EOC is the lack of suitable childcare in the
UK.

Mellor praised the Government for promoting work-life balance by introducing
the right for parents to request flexible working in the Employment Act. But
she said more needed to be done to help working parents.

The UK has the poorest childcare record in Europe, with only one in seven
children under the age of eight having access to a formal childcare place.
Mellor thinks a radical overhaul of the way childcare operates is needed, with
working parents entitled to free cover. "I’d like to see childcare as a
modern public service for all who want it, just like the health service,"
she said.

She is equally critical of the remuneration arrangements for parents and
clearly sees the whole area as one requiring the close attention of the EOC.

"Pay levels for paternity and maternity leave need to be much closer to
income replacement, otherwise men don’t take it and women can end up in dire
financial straits.

"Parental leave should also be paid, or men won’t take it in
significant numbers. There should also be greater flexibility in how individuals
can use it."

Mellor backs the idea of a creating a single equality body outlined in a
White Paper last year, drawing together gender, race, age, disability and
religion, but with certain conditions.

She insists any new body must have the same mix and breadth of powers as the
EOC, otherwise the focus of the individual groups could be diluted. It would
have to have a mix of legal, enforcement, support, promotional and
agenda-setting powers to have any real impact.

Looking to the future, Mellor says the next big challenges will be about
supporting working fathers as well as mothers, and pushing the rate of change
at a much faster pace.

"Progress is too slow because we’re still tackling the same fundamental
issues that we were 30 years ago," she said.

www.eoc.org.uk

By Ross Wigham

Comments are closed.