Head-to-head: Gender equality duty

Labour MP Harriet Harman has openly suggested that her party considers women for its top positions once Blair and Prescott leave the scene. With the Equality Act 2006 due to come into force in April 2007, the rest of the public sector is also going to have to take a long look at its gender policies to see whether they discriminate against men or women. This ‘gender duty’ aims to remove the glass ceiling and make things fairer for all. But how likely is it to achieve these aims, and what do public sector bodies need to put in place first? More importantly, will it lead to change in the wider business world?

Pamela Parkes, divisional director for HR and organisation development at Croydon Council and chair of the equality and diversity network for the Public Sector People Managers Association, and Paul Deemer, information and intelligence manager, NHS Employers, have their own opinions

What are you doing to prepare for the impact of the gender duty?

Pamela Parkes: It’s a massive duty, so expectations are pretty wide about what it will do. We have been involved in consultation on a draft code of practice that outlines employers’ responsibilities for data collection, recruitment, part-time workers, redundancy, retirement and, most importantly, equal pay. This is just coming to conclusion, and the draft is in the process of being written up.

Paul Deemer: We have been working closely with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), and representatives from other major public sector organisations, to look at the fine details of the legislation, and discuss different approaches to dealing with the challenges. The EOC is also producing guidelines that are health-sector specific, so we have been talking to them and the Department of Health to make the guidance as practical as possible.

Does the ‘gender duty’ provide more challenges than opportunities?

Pamela Parkes: Examining your practices and policies is always a good thing as it provides an opportunity to see where you can improve. But if you look at the raft of equality legislation that’s currently moving on board, there’s a huge number of requirements for the public sector to fulfil. When you’re confronted with so much change, there’s a danger that you will merely tick the boxes instead of helping things to actually change, which is the last thing anybody wants.

Paul Deemer: Gender equality duty in the healthcare sector throws up slightly different challenges as our gender make-up is 73% female. If you burrow down even further into specifics, the ratio in nursing for instance is 80% female. That is not the norm and throws up some interesting gender issues, as our concern here is the under-representation of men, rather than women.
We are in the process of trying to identify some good practice around the issue of positive action, and that will hopefully give us a framework that we can present to the NHS as a model. That way, we can look at the specifics of the gender make-up, and take appropriate action.

Will the ‘gender duty’ have a wider impact on the business world?

Pamela Parkes: There is guidance about procurement to promote the equality agenda to external services. But it’s difficult because some people believe the private sector remains competitive because it’s not bound by all the legislation the public sector has to deal with. I don’t agree with that argument, but it’s likely to be one that’s used by suppliers.

Paul Deemer: Definitely. We will certainly encourage NHS organisations to ensure all contracts they enter into with the private sector include a clear, contractual clause that highlights the gender obligations the supplier has to follow.

Will it help to close the gender pay gap?

Pamela Parkes: I am slightly pessimistic about the effect it’s going to have, for the simple reason that gender inequality has been there for centuries, and it’s going to take some time for us to ensure it’s fully eradicated. It could help to close the pay gap slightly, but I suspect it won’t change the way society looks at women in the home and the workplace.

Paul Deemer: I think it will have a significant impact around the pay area, as in many ways, the EOC’s research on the pay gap is the impetus for this legislation. Certainly in the public sector it’s likely to be a huge driver of change.

What help should the government provide?

Pamela Parkes: The most important aspect is simply to make sure the raft of different equality legislation is coherent. It doesn’t make sense to me otherwise. Along with the other equality legislation, the gender duty will slowly help the situation to improve, but I would not expect it to transform the workplace overnight. A significant number of similar requirements have already been embraced by the public sector, so it’s not reinventing the wheel. But hopefully, it will allow us to re-examine our existing policies, and enhance what we have already got in place.

Paul Deemer: The government led the way with women-only shortlists a few years ago, and if you look at the number of female Labour MPs in Parliament, that has to be applauded. They effectively took positive action and it worked, and is showing its benefits. Where they have fallen down slightly however is in senior leadership – the glass ceiling syndrome. So while they have good representation now, they have still failed to extend this example all the way to the top.


Natalie Godfrey, partner in employment team, Stephenson Harwood:

“It’s difficult to make changes if you don’t know the current make-up of your workforce and you cannot underestimate how long it’s going to take to prepare all the relevant data. Employers really haven’t got very long to prepare, as the legislation comes into force in April and they have to look at their services, the number of women they have at senior level, the suppliers they use and the way they offer their services to the public. The other problem is that once you’ve identified where the issues are you then have to take steps to act upon them, which again takes time. To achieve this, employers need act now.”

Norma Jarboe, director , Opportunity Now:

“Public bodies are huge purchasers of goods and services, so if the gender duty is considered a part of the procurement process, it could have a big impact on the companies from the private sector that are chosen as suppliers. There’s already growing evidence that diversity professionals are being asked for input when tenders are being drawn up. The EOC sees the public duty to promote gender as the key to resolving the gender pay gap. This means that in outsourcing, public bodies must now ensure that any unequal pay issues in their organisations are not passed on to new suppliers who don’t have the funds or a plan to rectify them.”

Richard Linskell, partner in employment team, Dawsons:

“Public sector employers will have to look closely at all their policies and procedures to make sure they’re not discriminating on grounds of gender. Most will be more or less compliant already, but the duty reaches far wider than policies alone, so employers will have to think carefully and conduct surveys to ensure their workforce is representative of the local population. It’s also very important that there isn’t a glass ceiling in place for female employees, as the reality is there’s still a lack of women reaching the higher levels. Public sector employers will now have to closely analyse every level of their organisation to ensure that women are given every possible opportunity to make it to the top.”

Karamat Iqbal, diversity consultant, The Forward Partnership:

“The gender equality duty is likely to be the most significant change in sex discrimination law since the Sex Discrimination Act. After the introduction of the duty, public bodies will need to publish an action plan outlining their strategy on sex equality; subsequently, they will need to publish annual progress reports. The EOC and later the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will have powers to enforce that this happens. So the sooner organisations get started, the better. Public bodies will also be well advised to consider the provision of flexible and part-time working including in senior roles, as the experience of companies like Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and Lloyds TSB has shown the clear business benefits this has for recruitment and retention.

What is the new gender equality duty?

The gender equality duty asks public authorities to actively promote gender equality and eliminate sex discrimination, and has major implications for the way that service providers and public sector employers operate. Some of the major implications are as follows:

  • All employment practices must consider the different gender needs of their staff. This should see increased childcare provision and more flexible working as public bodies respond to the needs of parents and carers.
  • Gender equality goals have to be set, and employers have to demonstrate action to achieve them.
  • A single Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) will bring together all six strands of discrimination – race, age, gender, disability, religion and sexual orientation – into one unified organisation.
  • Instead of individuals raising complaints about sex discrimination, the duty places the responsibility on public bodies to demonstrate that they treat men and women fairly, and are taking active steps to promote gender equality.
  • By requiring public bodies to understand the implications of their policies for women and men, the duty aims to improve public policy and remove the barriers to women reaching the top of an organisation.

Compiled by Phil Boucher

Tell us what you think? Does the gender duty create more challenges than opportunities? E-mail dawn.spalding@rbi.co.uk

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