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New approach needed for equality

May 20 2006 - A recent report from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) shows there have been a quarter of a million employment tribunal cases of sex discrimination and 67 000 related to equal pay in the thirty years since the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts came into force, with record numbers filed over the last five years. Yet the EOC states that many of the problems of gender equality remain stubbornly persistent. The Commission cites as examples:

  • Women working part-time earn nearly 40 per cent less per hour than men working full-time and this has barely changed over the last thirty years.
  • Four out of five part-time workers, mostly women, find themselves stuck in jobs below their potential partly due to the lack of flexible working at more senior levels.
  • Nearly half of pregnant women experience some form of pregnancy discrimination at work, and 30 000 are forced out of their jobs.

The government is conducting a review of anti-discrimination laws as it works towards a Single Equality Bill. The Gender Duty, the biggest change to gender discrimination legislation in thirty years, will come into force in April 2007. It places a positive duty on public sector employers to actively promote equality in employment practices and the delivery of goods and services.

The EOC argues that laws to combat discrimination, until now based largely on people bringing individual tribunal cases when they experience inequality, are not delivering change fast enough. According to the EOC, there will always be a need for some legal redress for individuals but an approach that reduces the number of cases necessary in the first place would bring benefits to both employers and employees. The average cost of legal advice and representation for individuals is £4400, while employers spend an average of £5800 on legal costs for their defence, not including staff time.

Many individuals are deterred from pursuing cases and discrimination goes unchecked as a result. An EOC investigation found that seven in ten pregnant women treated unfairly by their employer do not take any further action. Ethnic minority women are more vulnerable to sex discrimination. Pakistani women, for example, face a pay gap 10 per cent higher than white women. Young ethnic minority women are twice as likely as white women to face questions at job interview about their plans for marriage and children.

Changes called for by the EOC include:

  1. A debate about the role of the private sector in preventing discrimination. The EOC favours an approach that places a requirement on private and voluntary sector employers to address all three causes of the pay gap in a proactive way, following on from new legislation for the public sector. Action could start with an equality check to see whether there is a pay gap and help for employers to understand the nature of the problem at their particular organization. Further options could include a review of pay systems or extension of more flexible work opportunities to help employees better balance work and family.
  2. Discrimination on the grounds of caring status to be explicitly recognized within the law. Many parents are now working and as the population ages, more people will face the additional responsibilities of caring for an older relative. Currently, 3 million people combine work with unpaid caring responsibilities, and 320 000 people with paid jobs do more than 50 hours of unpaid caring work each week. The unpaid caring work done by parents and carers in the UK is estimated to be worth £277 billion.
  3. To achieve detailed, practical and in many cases long overdue changes to the law to make it more efficient and less complex.

Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, commented:

"Thousands of tribunal cases later the reality of sex equality is still far from our grasp. Both individuals and employers rely on a costly tribunal system that delivers conflict better than change. We need to look afresh at equality law in today's modern context. Thirty years on from the Sex Discrimination Act, most mothers now work, fathers too want to be more involved at home and many more of us have caring responsibilities for parents or relatives. Many thousands of forward-looking employers are already creating a more welcoming environment through good policies and are reaping the business benefits. They find that preventing problems before they start works much better than tackling them after they arise.

The Government is now undertaking a welcome review of discrimination laws to create a single Equality Act - a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish laws that work better for both individuals and employers. We would like to see the widest possible debate about how best to achieve that outcome, including whether we should take the opportunity to build on recent changes in the public sector by asking private and voluntary sector employers to take active steps to promote sex equality. Prevention is always better than cure, and when it delivers business benefits too, it should be considered as an approach."

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