Employees hold key to bridging the gender gap

Sexual inequality at work is being addressed via
legislation, but the EOC believes it is employers who must force the necessary
cultural change


Twenty-five years on from the Sex Discrimination Act there
is no doubt we still have a long way to go before we achieve equality for women
and men in the workplace. Although some women have broken through the glass
ceiling, the vast majority are still in low-status, low-paid jobs.

In formal terms, equal opportunities is now firmly we not
made more progress, despite this formal recognition of the need for employers
to lead the way in promoting equality? Why hasn’t policy always translated into
practice? We know from the people who come to the Equal Opportunities
Commission for advice that women still lose their jobs or are denied opportunities
for promotion when they become pregnant, that men are refused the option of
working part-time though their female colleagues are not, that gender can still
influence the sorts of jobs that people are considered for.

I believe that this is because women have so far been
accommodated at the fringes of the traditionally male world of work. Although
they now make up half the workforce and are expected to fill two-thirds of new
jobs in the future, they almost invariably have to adapt to traditional male working
patterns and attitudes towards work if they want to get on. Having children
remains a serious barrier to a successful career for many women.

What’s more, it is clear these traditional working patterns
and attitudes don’t even work for men any more. British fathers work the
longest hours and are the most dissatisfied in Europe. Although many want to
play an active part in bringing up their children, they are often prevented
from doing so.

A radical rethink of the way work is organised is needed to
enable all employees to have choices about how they arrange their lives. The
growing awareness of the conflicting demands of work and home that many women
and men struggle to balance must be translated into action. The introduction of
parental leave, a right to time off for domestic emergencies and the ongoing
Government consultation on further parental rights are all signs of the
beginnings of acceptance at the highest level of the need for a dramatic change
in our culture. But it is employers who have the real power to realise that
change of culture.

If employers made an undertaking to do all they could to
accommodate their staff’s needs for flexibility; if managers ensured they were
rewarding the people who delivered results, not those who worked the longest
hours; if all employers committed themselves to entirely transparent
recruitment and promotion procedures and reviewed their pay systems to ensure
they were free of gender bias, I believe we would see the results relatively

It is essential that employers lead by example, promoting a
culture that enables all individuals to fulfil their potential, and recognises
workers have a contribution to make outside the workplace.

As more and more voices join those calling for a new
approach to working life it will become increasingly difficult for employers
who want to attract and retain the best staff to resist the pace of
change.  The EOC is committed to
continuing its work with employers, the Government and unions to help them
identify innovative approaches to tackling the root causes of inequality. 


By Julie Mellor, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission

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