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#PressforProgress – What this year’s international women’s day theme should mean to employers

Employment Law & HR

Over the last 12 months, issues affecting women have been pushed to the fore, with campaigns like #MeToo and Time’s Up popularising what the majority already knew; women are often not treated equally to their male counterparts. For women living in the United Kingdom, arguably this disparity is felt the most in relation to women’s working lives.

After sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein snowballed, the media wasted no time in reporting how many women, and men, across various industries are affected by sexual harassment in the workplace. Off the back of this, BBC Radio 5Live carried out a survey which found that 53% of women in the workplace had experienced sexual harassment. What was perhaps more shocking was the statistic reported by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 2016 that 50% of the women surveyed has been warned as new recruits to expect inappropriate behaviour from particular employees. This implies that in some workplaces, the harassment is simply being ignored, perhaps due to the seniority of the harassers or worries about upsetting the status quo. However, if ‘Push for Progress’ should mean anything, it is that the status quo will no longer do. Employers should be continuing to invest in sexual harassment prevention, which will require a three-fold approach. With an investment of time and money it is relatively easy to change policies and provide training. However, it is a cultural change that will really make the difference. A culture of reporting, openness and non-tolerance should be encouraged by all to ensure that those who are subject to sexual harassment at work feel that they will be supported by their employers.

Not only has today seen the mark of International Women’s Day but this has also happened to coincide with what the TUC has dubbed Women’s Pay Day. This effectively means that due to the 18.4% wage difference between men and women in the UK, women have effectively been working for free so far this year. Despite decades of campaigning, the UK still had the fourth highest pay gap in the EU in 2016. In order to combat this, the Government introduced new regulations requiring public bodies and organisations with over 250 employees to publish gender pay gap reports. For most organisations, the first of these will be due on 4 April this year, although many have already started to publish the results on the government website. Originally, it was thought that there would be few consequences for those who failed to comply with their reporting obligations. However the EHRC is currently consulting on a draft enforcement strategy including seeking summary convictions and unlimited fines for those who fail to engage with initial enforcement steps.

What is interesting is that employers often claim that their gender pay gap can be attributed to the fact their senior positions are filled mostly by male employees, claiming there is no disparity between pay for employees doing the same jobs. However, an ONS report has found that only one third of the pay gap can be attributed to this, which leaves two thirds unexplained. Further, whilst organisations may be able to put their gap down to men and women holding different roles, there are clear arguments for encouraging diversity in the organisation, in certain roles and at management levels.

Additionally, many employers may be paying their male and female employees differently for work that they believe is different but, under the Equality Act 2010 would actual be considered work of equal value. In such cases, a disparity could form the basis of a successful equal pay claim if left unaddressed. There have been landmark cases on equal pay in recent months. Over 7,000 equal pay claims were brought against Asda stores by retail employees, predominantly women. They sought to compare themselves with higher-paid employees in distribution depots, who are predominantly male. The tribunal’s decision, upheld by the EAT, was that the roles were of equal value and therefore could be compared. The EAT confirmed that where there is a body responsible for the inequality which could restore the equal treatment that is in control of pay arrangements and conditions for both groups of workers, a direct comparison is permitted. Following this, there have now been similar claims made against Tesco which, if they are successful, could result in a £4 billion pay out.

Asides from taking the time to properly assess the value of their employee’s work, employers can do more to try and reduce their gender pay gap. One way is to address the underlying causes of the gap, often related to flexible working arrangements and their overwhelming uptake by female employees in comparison to male employees. Whilst fathers often remain in the workplace for the duration of their career, therefore having the opportunity to take advantage of promotion opportunities, mothers may become part-time or leave the workplace altogether. HMRC data from 2016 shows that only 1% of those eligible had made use of shared parental leave. The poor take up amongst men can be attributed both to financial constraints, as the father often earns more than the mother, and a cultural stigma that an extended period of time off to care for children could damage career prospects. Indeed, Acas have also called for a shift away from the perception that men who want to work flexibly are not as committed to their career as others. This follows a report that found that only 15% of fathers work part-time in comparison to 59% of mothers.

The theme throughout these employment issues has been a need for culture change to protect women within the workplace and to ensure that they can take advantage of career opportunities in the same way as their male counterparts. Arguably, managers should be leading by example both in the way they conduct themselves at work and in the decisions they make with regards to policies and recruitment. This year, employers should pause to take stock of their own practices and think about how they can champion the rights of their female employees in order to ‘Press for Progress’.

If you feel that any of these issues might be affecting your workplace or you want to understand what steps you can be taking to encourage equality in the workplace, do not hesitate to get in touch with your dedicated Employment Solicitor today.


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