2018 is a momentous year, in that it marks 100 years since British women were given the right to vote. Things have moved on a bit since 1918, and we can safely say that there have been many positive developments since then aimed at addressing the issue of gender inequality in the workplace.
Yet here we are, in this historic centenary year, reading daily accounts of high-profile cases of sex discrimination and harassment. Take, for example, the BBC "not doing equal pay" and the sexual harassment allegations arising from the notorious Presidents Club dinner. Inequality in the workplace remains a real issue, and against that backdrop one key question needs to be considered: are the UK's sex discrimination laws still fit for purpose?
This was the question that the Fawcett Society (the UK's leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women's rights), together with a panel of legal and policy experts, was recently tasked with answering. Following a nine-month review, the Society has now made a number of recommendations on the following topics.
The Society recommended that the use of ministerial powers conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill should be limited so that they cannot be used to substantively amend employment law in the UK. Unlimited ministerial powers would allow scope for amendments that would have a disproportionate impact on female workers, such as curtailing rights protected by the Working Time Directive, the Parental Leave Directive, and part-time and agency workers' rights. In particular, the Society recommended that the equality legislation be enacted as primary legislation, as was the approach with the European Convention on Human Rights through the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998.
Gender pay gap
The gender pay gap between men and women (which was 9.1 per cent in 2017) was noted as being "stubbornly slow in closing". The new reporting requirements show that important policy progress is being made on this issue, but the Society recommended that civil penalties for non-compliance should be introduced and the threshold for reporting obligations lowered.
The Society also highlighted another problem area, namely that an estimated 54,000 pregnant women and working mothers are made redundant or pressured to leave their jobs each year across the UK. The Society attributes this to the fact that, as it stands, the additional protection from dismissal linked to maternity discrimination ends on the last day of an employee's maternity leave. As such, the Society has recommended extending the protection to cover the six-month period immediately following a mother's return to work.
Work place harassment
The report noted that research has revealed that 52 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in some form, and that 80 per cent did not report it to their employer. It was recommended that, as one of the steps to address this issue, Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 (which can make an employer liable for the harassment of its staff by a third party in certain situations) should be reintroduced. Section 40 was previously repealed in 2013. However, the Society also suggested an amendment, so that only a single prior incident of harassment would be necessary to trigger the application of the provision. It was also recommended that pregnancy and maternity, in addition to marriage and civil partnership status, be included as protected characteristics when it comes to prohibiting harassment.