Equality in the UK, why we must try harder

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Written by Sarah Pumffrey

Business leaders might be trying to tackle the gender pay gap, but discrimination of all forms is still rife in the workplace.

The main law protecting employees from discrimination is the Equalities Act 2010. It safeguards nine protected characteristics – age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion/belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage/civil partnership, and pregnancy/maternity – and is overseen by the European Commission on Human Rights.

However, the reality is some characteristics are more protected than others, and none so much as gender. It’s the easiest to monitor, with data readily available, and is often something organisations are most comfortable tackling.


Why gender?

Diversity and Inclusion specialist Charlotte Sweeney says: “Many companies argue that diversity and inclusion is such a big area, so they usually focus on gender as the more pressing and ‘easiest’. This means issues like race and religion are pushed to the side and it’s assumed that some of the work on gender will have a positive impact on everyone.”

The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 came into force in April last year, making it a legal requirement for organisations with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap. The BBC was one of the first to do so in July 2017, revealing that the top seven of its highest-earning stars were male. Its highest-earning female star took home five times less than her male equivalent.

By April this year, more than 10,000 firms had published their own pay gap reports, with three quarters of them paying men more than women. Those with gaping pay gaps included easyJet, where the average male employee was paid half as much again as the average woman, and PwC, which reported a median hourly pay gap of 34.4%.

As well as the reputational risk to businesses is the financial consequence: the BBC could face ‘hundreds’ of equal pay claims, while supermarket chains Tesco and Asda are at the centre of similar legal action.

Part of this pay disparity has been linked to women taking time out from the workplace to have a family. The Hays Gender Diversity Report 2017 found that a quarter of men were promoted after starting a family, compared to only 10% of women.

The report also suggested that flexible working was shunned by 75% of female employees who felt it would have a negative impact on their career.

However, Betty Wu, lecturer in accounting and finance at the University of Glasgow, who has researched the Big Four accountancy firms (KPMG, PwC, Deloitte and Ernst & Young), found that even for all newly qualified female chartered accountants, an 8% pay gap already exists. This, she says: “throws into question that gender pay gaps are because women are more likely than men to work part-time and have career breaks once they have children”.


Race relations

In February 2018, the government commissioned outreach charity Business in the Community to find out if organisations had taken on recommendations made in Baroness McGregor-Smith’s 2017 review into career progression for ethnic minorities.


“Issues like race and religion are pushed to the side and it’s assumed that some of the work on gender will have a positive impact on everyone”

 Charlotte Sweeney, diversity and inclusion specialist

The McGregor-Smith review found that the economy could benefit from a £24bn-a-year boost if black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees have the same opportunities as their white colleagues and suggested companies with more than 50 employees should publish a breakdown of their workforce by race and pay band.

Sandra Kerr, national campaign director at Business in the Community, says that, although the results of its review are not yet public, they present “few surprises”.

She adds: “We know ethnicity and race has an impact, but at the moment it’s not straightforward to collect data on this, and some groups have greater disparities than others. Employers are not even comfortable talking about race.”

Kerr also says that unconscious bias in the recruitment process means there is a “clear trajectory of those who are employed after interview stage”, adding: “If you’re white, it went up, and if you’re black or Asian, the numbers level or slump.”

She recommends measures like mentoring, training interviewers against unconscious bias, and having a more diverse interview panel, as well as including race and ethnicity targets in procurements processes, as was done with the London 2012 Olympics. “When there’s a financial incentive, they managed to achieve the targets they needed to,” she notes.


Room for improvement

Disability is an area where things have noticeably worsened. According to the Disabled Living Foundation, there are around 13m disabled people in the UK, but only 3.5m are in employment.

Disability Rights UK’s policy manager, Philip Connolly, says: “Things are as bad as they have been since 1950. People have never had it so bad, and with all the austerity cuts, we’re actually moving backwards.”

With the removal of the Independent Living Fund in England, and other austerity cuts, Connolly says independent living for disabled people has become impossible. “Getting to work is harder, and people are leaning more on their families to pick up this care, resulting in a loss in spending power for the worker and the carer,” adds Connolly.

Job retention is low among disabled workers, too, he says. “In the absence of collating any data on disabled employees, employers are forced to use performance indicators used by everyone else – meaning keeping a job is also harder.”

Other protected characteristics need improvement, too. Stonewall says that a third of LGBT staff have hidden or disguised their sexuality at work because of a fear of discrimination. Meanwhile, research from the government’s social mobility watchdog found that despite strong work ethics that resulted in impressive results in education, only 6% of Muslims are in higher managerial, administrative or professional roles, compared with 10% of the overall population.

Despite discrepancies between which areas are tackled and how, and even when data is collected by organisations under corporate governance, Dr Martin Petrin, senior lecturer at UCL’s Faculty of Law, says: “The idea that companies will feel named and shamed into taking action’ is unreal…there’s no duty to do anything else.”

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