The Equality Act 2010 rationalised over 116 separate pieces of historic legislation to provide a single, modern framework for equality law and “protect the rights of the individual and advance equality of opportunity for all”.
The Act outlaws discrimination both in the work place and in wider society on the grounds of any of the “protected characteristics”. These include age, disability, race, religion or belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy/maternity, marriage/civil partnership, sexual orientation and our topic for today – gender.
Earlier this month we celebrated 103 years of International Women’s Day. The theme this year was “Inspiring Change” however a recent survey by Business Environment claims that gender discrimination is still as prevalent in the UK as it was some 20 years ago. More than a quarter of the 1,500 female office workers surveyed felt that they had experienced some form of gender discrimination in the workplace and 27% even admitted that they would be reluctant to hire a woman of child bearing age themselves.
It’s the responsibility of all employers to ensure that their staff don’t suffer discrimination in the workplace. Employers will be held accountable unless they can prove that they have done everything within their power to prevent it. So what does this mean and how do they avoid accusations of sexism?
The first step is to understand that prevention is always better than cure. This means putting in place comprehensive staff policies, handbooks and procedures covering the whole lifespan of the employment process – from recruitment and selection right through to retirement. An Equal Opportunities and Non-Discrimination Policy will form a key part of this paperwork.
For example, job advertisements should not state or imply that an employer will discriminate against a certain gender unless there is a justifiable occupational requirement (such as a bra fitting service). Consider also where to advertise job vacancies – advertisements in men only magazines could be a form of indirect discrimination. Once candidates reach interview, the interview and selection process should also be gender neutral.
Of course, policies and procedures are no good unless staff are aware of them. A good induction process will explain to new employees their responsibility to read the policies, how to access them and will record when they have done so. Then there can be no excuse of ignorance. Line managers should be trained on how to identify potential discriminatory behaviour and what measures to take to eliminate it.
If an employee submits a grievance alleging gender (or indeed any other) discrimination, the employer has a duty to take it seriously and should have procedures in place to act promptly and carry out an investigation in to the matter. Dealing with a grievance can be a very sensitive matter involving claims and counterclaims, so an experienced manager should be chosen who can handle it fairly and professionally. There should also be an appeal process to review decisions if necessary.
So, why is it so important to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace? Quite apart from the reputational issues and damage to internal teams, there is no upper limit to Employment Tribunal awards in discrimination cases and the two year qualifying period of employment doesn’t apply. Well paid employees can receive substantial awards and it’s not well known that cases can be brought against individual employees as well as the employer.
In conclusion, a good employer can go a long way to prevent gender discrimination issues from damaging their business. Many issues can be resolved internally, but if things are getting difficult we recommend seeking specialist professional advice at an early stage which will often prevent matters getting out of hand. Backhouse Solicitors offer a free 30 minute consultation with an expert employment law solicitor. If you are concerned about gender discrimination issues within your business or feel that you may have been discriminated against contact us today.