Women in the workplace 100 years on from when they were first given the right to vote

On the anniversary of the year women were first permitted to vote our Employment Law specialist Deborah Francis provides us with her insight on how women are being treated in the workplace 100 years later.

Business woman sits behind a computer

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual behaviour, expected to make a person feel offended or humiliated. It can be intimidating and includes physical, verbal and written communication. 

According to a recent report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), two out of three young women are stated to have experienced sexual harassment at work but did not report it to their employer. I recall at 16 years of age being subjected to repeated unwelcome sexual advances by my much older manager. However, like a lot of these young women I was worried about the consequences of reporting it. I also know others that have had similar experiences which supports the TUC’s findings. 

In my professional experience, I have also found that more often than not it is the victim that loses their job. They are often invited to enter into a Settlement Agreement containing a "gagging clause" (confidentiality provision) effectively waiving away their rights to pursue a claim in respect of the harassment they had endured, whilst the perpetrator is often left to carry on without being held to account for their actions.

This is sometimes due to the reluctance of other members of staff to support the person making the complaint perhaps, for fear of repercussions, or due to the employer’s fear that if they uphold the complaint they could be held vicariously liable for perpetrators actions.

In the absence of evidence some employers address the situation by offering the perpetrator an exit package in order to protect their staff. This is sometimes due to concerns that they could be subject to an employment tribunal claim if they were to proceed to dismiss them. 

Equal Pay Act 1970

The law requiring employers to pay staff that do the same or comparable work equally regardless of their gender has been consistent for the last 50 years. This therefore begs the question why large corporations such as the BBC and Tesco appear to still be failing to comply with this legal obligation.

However, after Carrie Gracie publicly exposed the Corporation’s failure to pay her an equivalent salary to her male colleagues which was followed by 200 staff then signing a letter demanding that the Corporation adopt a policy of full pay transparency it has been announced that they will be conducting an enquiry. The Corporation states that it wants to adopt an approach to pay transparency in line with best practice in the public sector. This is expected to affect all BBC staff, freelancers and contractors.  Will Hutton a former BBC journalist and editor of The Observer has been given the task of leading the enquiry. We will have to wait and see if equality in terms of pay is finally achieved at the Corporation.    

Meanwhile 100 female staff members of Tesco are pursuing equal pay claims in order to try and recover sums averaging £20,000 each in respect of an underpayment. 

The Office for National Statistics states that the pay gap currently stands at 19.2%.  New rules on pay transparency which were supposed to be introduced in 2016 for companies that employ more than 250 are due to come into effect this year. Under the rules businesses will be required to be transparent about pay rates. They will then be given time to address any inequality before their data is published. Hopefully, this will make businesses take steps to address any discrepancy and reduce the pay gap.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

A survey conducted by the Equality Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has revealed that almost 6 out of 10 employers in the private sector that took part believe that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the interview process.

More than a third thought it was acceptable to ask women about their plans to have children before making a decision to give them a job. The fact that the employers polled believe that a woman should disclose this information and that they should be entitled to ask these questions strongly suggests that any response will be taken into consideration when deciding whether to offer them a job.  Employers that do ask these questions run the risk of liability for sex discrimination when they decline to offer the women a job.

Whilst I appreciate that employers are busy running their businesses and may find the legislation complicated. Best practice would be seek advice at the outset to reduce the risks of making blunders leaving their business liable to a claim and effectively handing practitioners a discrimination claim on a plate.

Some two years ago Maternity Action conducted a survey which revealed that Pregnancy and Maternity discrimination was still widespread. At that time the number of women that were being forced out of their job due to being pregnant or on maternity leave was found to have doubled. I personally have not noticed any decline in the number of women coming to see me for advice whilst pregnant or on maternity leave which is hardly surprising given the findings of the EHRC.

Avoiding employing women of child bearing age is not beneficial to women or businesses. These women have valuable skills and should not be disregarded as baby machines.

100 years has passed since the vote and while some progress has been made, it is evident that Equality for women is still a work in progress.

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