The terms ‘sex discrimination’, ‘gender pay gap’ and ‘glass ceiling’ are often heard, but perhaps not so often properly understood. According to statistics and reports, female employees are at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. Should this information be taken at face value, the following conclusion could be drawn:
‘Women in the UK are suffering from workplace inequality, as despite the legal protections in place, stereotypical gender roles continue to permeate employer decisions.’
This statement formed the hypothesis which my dissertation aimed to explore. More specifically, I focused on the Equality Act 2010 (EA) and how it protects female employees.
Regrettably, my research found that women continue to face employer perceptions of inability or unreliability, based on conventional stereotypes which have resisted social change. This has persisted despite the introduction of legal protections, due to several fundamental flaws.
Interestingly however, I found that the EA’s provisions are valuable and functional, when considered individually. For example, there are three types of equal work eligible for equal pay: like work, work rated as equivalent and work of equal value. This is remarkably comprehensive and suggests a wide scope of protection for prospective claimants. Additionally, the protection from direct discrimination is strict and unconditional, demonstrating an absolute prioritisation of equality. At the very least, the EA covers a range of claimants and forms of discrimination. Unfortunately, these merits are undermined by flaws inherent in the application of the law. However useful the provisions are on their own accord, people are unaware of their rights or unable to exercise them. Furthermore, the EA is reactive rather than proactive. In other words, the onus is on the wronged individual to challenge their employer. Therefore, the EA effectively allows employers to treat women unfairly, aside from those who have the resources to contest such treatment.
The EA also signals a missed opportunity to enforce mandatory positive action. ‘Positive action’, in this context, refers to an employer’s ability to choose to employ a woman over an equally-qualified man where women are underrepresented within the workforce. In Northern Ireland, mandatory enforcement of this system successfully increased representation of Catholics within employment. Disappointingly, positive action remains an option, often ignored practice for UK employers.
Although my dissertation was critical of the EA, the law cannot be blamed solely for gender inequality. My analysis revealed that women often make the conscious choice to avoid full-time or high responsibility employment, to focus on family life in accordance with traditional roles. Clearly, society’s conventional ideals and their impact on women’s career choices cannot be addressed by legislation.
For the foreseeable future, it is predicted that women will continue to face unequal pay and unequal representation within many workplaces, whether or not this is their own choice. However, trends suggest that male and female domestic roles are beginning to equalise. As this social change advances, it may well be the case that men need to rely on equality provisions to secure equal treatment to women in terms of paternity leave and acknowledgement of their childcare obligations.