Sex discrimination
and equal pay –
the debate rages on

Sex discrimination and equal pay – the debate rages on

Published: 15th March 2018
Area: Corporate & Commercial
Author: Helen Hughes

Events over the past year, such as the BBC’s publication of salaries paid to their top stars and the more recent sexual harassment scandals in Westminster (and across the pond in Hollywood), have highlighted the inequality which female workers suffer in comparison to their male counterparts.

Media coverage of these issues has continued to gain momentum over the last month and the wearing of black by female stars at recent awards ceremonies has ensured that this remains front-page news.

The Fawcett Society has published its Sex Discrimination Law Review Final Report, which explored whether UK equality legislation was fit for purpose. The Report covered a variety of topics, including: the potential impact (both positive and negative) of Brexit on rights predominantly enjoyed by female workers; the gender pay gap; equal pay protections; pregnancy and maternity discrimination; support for carers; statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance; paternity and shared parental leave; workplace harassment and dress codes. It makes a series of recommendations to improve rights currently enjoyed by workers.

What should your organisation do?

In light of the Society’s recommendations, steps that your organisation could take to ensure that it is compliant with UK discrimination laws include:

  • Conduct a review of your organisation’s pay structure to ensure that it is compatible with equal pay requirements;
  • Take active steps to ensure that, upon return from maternity leave, women are not discriminated against. Consider “returner” programmes to encourage women to return from maternity leave and to assist those who do. Consider your flexible working practices and ensure that they are applied equally to men who may wish to work flexibly too;
  • What dress code, if any, does your organisation adopt? Are any of its rules outdated and/or sexist e.g. a requirement to wear high heels;
  • Consider training around sexual harassment (and/or unconscious bias) – now might be an ideal time to provide a refresher; and
  • Ensure that you have a clear and well communicated Equal Opportunities Policy and policies relating to harassment and bullying. Ensure all staff receive adequate training regarding those policies.

The Report

The Sex Discrimination Law Review Final Report acknowledges that female workers have greatly benefitted from the UK’s membership of the EU. However, it also highlights that these protections are under threat due to the Ministerial powers conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which allows employment legislation to be amended without in depth parliamentary scrutiny. The Society has recommended that the Withdrawal Bill is amended so that ministers are unable to use their powers to make substantive amendments to UK employment law without being subject to the normal scrutiny.

The Report identifies that the gender pay gap varies significantly “across women’s working lives and for women with different characteristics”. The Society recognises that there are complex reasons for this, but what is inescapable is the fact that the “gap is stubbornly slow in closing”. Running parallel to this is the issue of equal pay. The Report states that equal pay has “yet to be achieved across the board”. It makes three recommendations which could improve the situation for women:

    1. The re-introduction of equal pay questionnaires with an Employment Tribunal being able to draw adverse conclusions where an employer refuses to answer them or does not provide a satisfactory response;
    2. The introduction of mandatory pay audits every three years for employers with 250 or more employees; and
    3. The introduction of effective procedures for resolution once an equal pay claim is raised.

The Report highlights that sexual harassment is common in the workplace with 52% of women having experienced it in one form or another but with very few incidents being reported to their employer. It also recognises that perpetrators of sexual harassment may not be a victim’s colleague; they may be a third party such as a customer or client. As a result, the Society calls for the re-introduction of section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 which stated that “an employer can be found to be responsible for third party harassment if they know of [at least] two previous incidents of harassment and have failed to take “reasonably practicable” steps to prevent the third party from harassing employees.” The Society recommends that section 40 be revised so that only one previous incident of harassment is required.

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