Equality for women at work – or not?

Oh dear.  The Equality Bill is making it’s way through Parliament and will become law in the autumn next year.  I’ve been following its progress because it includes a controversial clause that makes positive discrimination lawful.  As I’ve said before positive discrimination does nothing to support women in the workplace.

The consultation for the bill commented that a similar system is in place in Norway.  Norway have made significant inroads in balancing the ratio of men to women in senior management, thanks to legislation that requires 40% of board members to be women.  However, last year Norway took a step backwards: gender parity used to be the responsibility of the Trade and Industry Ministry but now it comes under the Equality Ministry.  Apparently women at work is not a business problem but a women’s rights issue, something that Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, authors of Why Women Mean Business, disagree with.

The Kingsley Napley quarterly employment law bulletin for the womenintechnology.co.uk network says:

Rather contentiously, the Bill will allow employers to use positive discrimination in their recruitment and promotion practices.  If there are two candidates for one role who are “as qualified” as each other, the employer may choose to recruit the candidate with a protected characteristic.  But the employer must have a reasonable belief the individual is from a protected group that is under-represented or disadvantaged.

Apparently changing the law isn’t enough in itself, at least for the public sector.  Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women and Equality (and the Minister who launched the consultation on positive discrimination last year), has kicked off a cross-party initiative to increase the number of women, black, Asian and minority ethnic people and disabled people on the boards of public bodies.  Why wait for the law to change when you can start a programme of mentoring, target setting and awareness raising now? In fact, why change the law at all if this initiative is going to work?

I would like to support initiatives that make workplaces more equal – and I do support the aims of the Diversity in Public Appointments programme – but I can’t help thinking that positive discrimination under the Equality Bill is still discrimination.

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