Sex, religion and discrimination – Off message: wrong about rights

Would you Adam and Eve it? In the past few weeks women’s rights, or rather lack of them, have been well and truly on the agenda.

First, there was Harriet Harman’s Framework for a Fairer Future, in which she introduces the forthcoming Equality Bill: “Our discrimination laws have helped us make progress on equality but, because they have developed over more than 40 years, they have become extremely complex”

A key aim of the Bill will be to enable women to enjoy the benefits of pay parity with men, which would be no bad thing. It also focuses on the rate of employment of disabled people, job opportunities for people from ethnic minorities, and the sidelining of older workers despite the introduction of the age discrimination regulations.

One of the main weapons for speeding up the equalisation of pay is described in the report as ‘positive action’ – secret code for ‘positive discrimination’.

As a result of previous comments on the subject in this column (Personnel Today, 8 May 2007) and elsewhere, I was invited to debate the issue on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

On the programme the TUC’s head of equality and employment rights, Sarah Veale, argued that progress was too slow and said that women had waited hundreds of years for pay equality. My view was that while progress had been slow, there has nonetheless been progress – at least since 1997 – and that you can’t force this issue with bad, not to say illegal, legislation.

Longstanding problem

But on reflection Veale was under-estimating the scale of problem. For while women may not have been waiting for it, and for most of the time probably never even considered it an option, they have been denied equality for much longer than a couple of hundred years.

In fact, in the Western world in particular, it’s been more like 2,000 years of mistreatment. And what is the main reason for this second-class status?

In her draft Bill Harman hints that her female intuition is on the case when she says: “The Bill will declutter what has become a thicket of legislation and guidance. It will be written in plain English, so that those who benefit from the law, and those who need to comply with it, can see the wood for the trees.”

Keeping to her flora-based analogies, let’s not beat about the burning bush any longer: there is one reason women get a raw deal in society in general and in the workplace in particular: religion. And with Harman’s call for the trimming of the unkempt hedge that makes up the current set of discrimination laws, what better opportunity will we have to get rid of a large chunk of legislation – protection from religious discrimination – that embeds inequality for women in our society.

Religious bigotry

Writing in the Guardian on Friday 4 July, Simon Jenkins nailed the issue to the cross, as it were: “Religious doctrine is a menace that has spattered the world with blood as it now spatters it with acrimony. Rival narratives are deeply embedded in every community’s DNA. The shrill conflicts of Ulster still enshrined in its politics and in public policy on schools and housing, show how fragile is the veneer of civilisation over the rock of religious bigotry.”

Jenkins was writing in relation to the Church of England’s current problem with the ordination of women and the acceptance of homosexuality – with half the church threatening to split off and form its own even-less-tolerant wing of Christianity.

Of course, the chances of religion being removed from the legal system were not helped by the lord chief justice, Lord Phillips’ more eloquent views on Sharia Law in his retelling the archbishop of Canterbury’s mad ramblings about how Islamic law could be used in the UK to settle disputes – something that immediately puts women on the back foot… in a ditch… with their hands tied behind their backs.

But the sooner all references to religions are expunged from the law books, the sooner we’ll have an equal society. And until this happens, the weight of 2,000 years of suppression will keep women where they’ve been for so long – in the background.

Plain English

Harman is certainly right that the current situation is confusing:

Is it indirect sex discrimination to be biased against a female candidate who has less experience in the workplace because she has taken time out to have a baby?

Is it indirect age discrimination to overlook the merits of a very young student because they’re too young to have actually taken any exams yet and have not had the opportunity to live long enough to have any kind of useful experience?

Is it indirect religious discrimination to not employ someone on the grounds that they never wash their hair or change their pants on account of their religious beliefs?

Getting rid of such pointless and unhelpful questions by trimming the law will be a great thing.

And in the workplace this could be achieved quite easily by defining what employers can do rather than providing a long list of what they can’t (which only serves to line the purses of the devil’s own troops – the legal profession.

Incorporating all forms of discrimination in one hit, it could read something like this:

‘Employers may only discriminate in recruitment and promotion situations on the basis of a person’s ability/potential to do the job. Any other criteria are banned.’ Er that’s it.

Plain English and a reduced carbon footprint as it would drastically reduce the amount of paper required to print it.

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