Pressure for action on gender equality

Government
plans to strengthen the laws on women’s rights in the workplace have been
welcomed, but HR experts urged employers to improve their own processes.

At
Labour’s National Policy Forum, which was held behind closed doors on Friday
and Saturday, Tony Blair was expected to announce the launch of a year-long
inquiry to recommend ways of tightening of the law.

The
inquiry, provisionally entitled the Women at Work Commission, will look at all
aspects of improving the life of women at work, including better pay and
curbing both sexual discrimination and being passed over for promotion in
favour of men.

The
latest figures show that sex discrimination cases taken to employment tribunal
leapt 76 per cent last year (see below).

There
has been a string of high-profile sex discrimination cases in recent weeks,
largely in the City, although other sectors have also come under the spotlight.

Only
last week, it emerged that BA stewardesses have taken the airline to an
industrial tribunal claiming that the company had harmed their promotion
prospects by offering them only part-time contracts when they returned to work
after having children. BA denies the claim.

Glenda
Stone, chief executive of Aurora, an organisation working for the economic
advancement of women, welcomed the inquiry.

“Women
are fed up with the barriers, endless discrimination and constant inappropriate
behaviour of UK plc,” Stone said.

However,
Laura Wander, HR director at Freedom Finance, said legislation was not the
answer.

“Businesses
have to look at themselves and ask what they are doing to tackle this problem,”
she said.

The
inquiry, which will follow the model of the Low Pay Commission, looks to
address the statistics that claim that, 30 years after the Equal Pay Act, the
pay gap between the sexes is still around 25 per cent.

The
inquiry is likely to be given a permanent role in monitoring the Government’s
progress.

By
Daniel Thomas

Feedback
from the profession

Glenda
Stone, chief executive, women’s organisation Aurora

“The
lack of women’s equality in the workplace significantly impacts on the UK’s
economy and limits its global competitiveness and innovation. With only a
handful of companies leading the way, the commission certainly has a tough
remit ahead of it.”

Paul
Kennedy, HR director, online travel firm ebookers

“The
employer has a responsibility to create an environment at the place of work,
where sexual discrimination is not tolerated. HR has a role to ensure policy
and processes exist to support this environment and ensure risks are identified
and mitigated.”

Frances
Wright, group HR director, psychometrics firm SHL

“The
inquiry should look at what help small businesses need and how it can be
provided. Small businesses, which cannot afford an HR person, are often not
fully conversant with the law and may not even be aware that they are
potentially discriminating.”

Angie
Risley, HR director, Whitbread

“The
danger is in new legislation being introduced, perhaps just to be seen to do
something. It would be a disaster for business, but also for women themselves
if there was legislation introduced just for the sake of it.”

Heather
Salway, HR Director at Eden Brown, the recruitment, training and consultancy
company

A
great deal of responsibility lies with the employer for discrimination. It is
not always possible for the employer to change how his employees think, but it
is possible to impact on the way in which they behave. Some employers are
complicit in discrimination by their silence, lack of clear guidelines and poor
training.

There
are two main problems; the first is the assumption that all women will become
parents, and the second that this will impact adversely on their performance at
work. Neither of these, of course, is true. These problems are compounded by a
lack of flexibility in some employers and the tendency to measure success on
inputs, not outputs

Sex
discrimination in the spotlight

Earlier
this month, Elizabeth Weston was awarded £1m after an executive at Merrill
Lynch made remarks about her breasts and sex life at a Christmas party.

Also
in July, Morgan Stanley paid out £29m ($54m) to settle a sex discrimination
case involving hundreds of its employees. The largest single payout, £6.5m
($12m), went to senior executive Allison Schieffelin.

In
2002, Kate Bleasdale received a £2.2m payout in settlement for her claim
against medical staff agency, The Match Group – a company she founded. She said
she was subjected to “sexual gibes, distrust and prejudice” after a management
buyout.

Comments are closed.