Ending discrimination? Yes Minister?

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Posted in:HR and Employment|July 18, 2014 | Join the mailing list

David Cameron’s promotion of 12 women to the cabinet and lower ministerial ranks has been labelled as the “night of the long wives”, while the historic vote at the General Synod this week means that women will be bishops in the Church of England after
40 years of waiting. However, do these changes signal a significant shift in the position of women in today’s society, or are they merely headlines?

As we approach the 40th anniversary next year of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Kim Freeman-Smith of the Berg employment team takes a look at the legal, business and cultural landscape.    

The judiciary: a cry for female judges

A key area where women remain under represented is the judiciary. In the High Court for example, there are just 11 women judges compared to 98 men and the Lord Chief Justice himself has spoken up in favour of a more balanced judiciary, stating that “we must
do everything we can to achieve wider judicial diversity”. A balance between the genders has certainly not yet been achieved in this area.

FTSE success?

June 2014 saw an end to all male FTSE 100 boards, as there is now no longer a single FTSE 100 company which has no female board representation. The “lack of women suitable for the role” reason often recited, and which has previously been used to justify all
male boards, has worn thin, and we have seen more and more women recruited to the top positions on company boards.

Slow paternity take up

Yet, is this apparent success hindered by the ongoing issue of childcare and maternity leave? As part of a new government scheme which has been on the statute books for over three years, men are now entitled to additional paternity leave, and yet a recent survey
found that three quarters of employers have not seen a single employee take up this opportunity. This statistic perhaps suggests that time taken away from the office desk for maternity/paternity leave is seen as a barrier to career progression, and may even
disadvantage employees from achieving a higher salary position in the long term.

Equal pay

Additionally, the Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced to protect the pay of a woman when doing the same or equal value work to that of a man (or indeed vice versa). Despite this legislation however, it seems that there is still a “gender pay gap”, with the organisation
Catalyst (encouraging diversity in business) reporting that the average difference in pay between men and women can equate to around £268,000 over a lifetime. There’s even been controversy over gender and pay in relation to the recent cabinet reshuffle, with
it being revealed that the new Leader of The House of Lords, Tina Stowell, is to be paid approximately £22,000 less than her male predecessor. So, is the modern workplace really as equal as many like to think?

Cultural landscape

And what about sport? Newspapers, television and social media have all been full in recent weeks with updates and commentary on the men’s football World Cup, yet the women’s World Cup, which is to be held in Canada in 2015, still remains an afterthought at
best. This seems to be a recurring pattern throughout sport, for example with little media coverage being devoted to the Women’s British Golf Open compared with the major attention given to its male equivalent.
Where are we heading?

The International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 signals the UK Government’s commitment to securing gender equality around the world, and very much reflects how this is seen by many as a must in today’s society. Despite this however, the Sex Discrimination
Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970 have still not yet achieved all that was promised to progress the status of women in the business and social world. Despite a good legislative foundation, society (including the judiciary, media and business) appears to
have been slow to react to the call for gender equality, meaning we have only had a crawl and not a sprint to the finishing of full equality between men and women. It’s certainly to be hoped that in the next few years, we can pick up the pace.

For more information about any of the above or for practical commercial advice on this or any other aspect of employment law, please contact
Kim Freeman-Smith
of the Berg Employment Team on 0161 833 9211 or email her at
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(The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional legal advice should
be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.)

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