Expect equality to spill over

Public sector employers will soon have a duty to promote gender equality across all aspects of their operations, in a move which could affect HR professionals in the private sector sooner than anticipated.

The government has just opened consultation about the rules which will require the public sector to monitor and act on gender issues affecting employees, consumers or any other stakeholders in the organisation.

The gender equality duty forms the third tranche of the government’s bid to improve diversity. It follows similar laws governing the public sector on race and disability.

Many businesses breathing a sigh of relief that the changes won’t affect them may need to think again, as public sector organisations could look at gender issues when awarding contracts or deciding which companies to work with.

Dianah Worman, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s diversity adviser, hopes the changes will encourage the private sector to take similar measures voluntarily, but said the rules could have a more direct influence.

“It’s interesting that the public sector is being used as an example and I hope employers will be able to act as mentors for private firms.

“However it could have an impact on the private sector because of the way they award contracts and how they will now look at suppliers,” she said.

Rather than solely preventing discrimination, the new duties will require employers to actively promote equality by taking steps as employers and as service providers.

Naturally this covers all internal employment matters such as equal pay and promotion, but also means that organisations must think about how gender issues affect their services.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has long campaigned for the changes. Acting chair Jenny Watson is excited about the scope of the Equality Bill, which is due to come into force next year.

“The gender equality duty is the most important change to sex discrimination law for 30 years – a real chance to change the climate and culture in which policies are made,” she said.

Watson is confident the reforms will have the political clout to tackle everything from equal pay and pension provisions, to public transport and outdated careers advice that encourages occupational segregation.

Although the duty is fairly straightforward, in employment terms, it may well establish an entirely new mindset in public service policy, with planners considering, for example, the needs of part-time female workers when setting public transport routes.

Under the proposals employers must identify gender goals and any steps required to attain them; publish an equality scheme; and assess the impact of any new legislation, policy or service delivery and publish the results.

The key element of the Bill is probably a further attempt to reduce the gender pay gap, which until now has proved painfully difficult to close, despite sustained campaigning and a raft of complex legal battles.

In fact, the gap for part time women is still at 40% – barely different from 30 years ago – so the new rules will need teeth if any progress is to be made.

In this latest attempt public sector employers will be required draw up a policy on equal pay which includes measures that ensure fair promotion and training.

Although it is well-intentioned, Worman is concerned that the legislation could be seen as a step too far by some, and she wants HR to ensure that diversity doesn’t become a tick-box exercise.

“The legislation will allow HR to have a more coherent approach but we mustn’t get caught up in procedures or people will see it as just another thing they have to do.

“Engagement is absolutely vital. The key challenge is around the way the law is designed – it needs to be practical and supportive of change.”

The consultation period ends on 12 January 2006 – for more details go to www.womenandequalityunit.gov.uk

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