2016 – an exceptional year for women

Louise Skinner

2016 is the year that keeps on giving. For decades it has seemed acceptable for women to be absent from the boardroom and from within the ranks of senior management; and the gender pay gap was merely one of the vicissitudes of life. But now it seems that not a week goes by without new research being published proving that a woman’s lot is far from fair, accompanied by initiatives to improve gender equality. Among these are the Gender Pay Gap reporting obligations, which are scheduled to come into force next April. In the summer, the financial services sector launched the Women in Finance Charter, and the Diversity Project for asset managers. Last week the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported on the widening gender pay gap after the arrival of children, resulting in pressure for more to be done to redress the balance. And in terms of access to justice, numerous reports have shown that employment tribunal fees have an adverse impact on women and in particular on new mothers, making them more vulnerable to poor treatment and prompting calls for reform.gender equality

Today there is a further report from Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee (WEC), which calls for “urgent action” to give new and expectant mothers more protection at work after what they describe as a “shocking” increase in discrimination. It is claimed that the number of new and expectant mothers forced to leave their jobs has almost doubled to 54,000 since 2005, and that protections in place currently, including paid maternity leave and the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave, don’t go far enough.

What are the latest recommendations?

The WEC is calling for a German-style system whereby, from the beginning of the pregnancy until four months post-birth, employers can only dismiss in very rare cases, such as company insolvency, and even then government approval is required. It is thought this could help tackle the scenario where pregnant women, or those on maternity leave, are made redundant, despite the lack of a robust case for their selection. Other recommendations include a substantial reduction in the fee for bringing a discrimination claim to an employment tribunal, as well as an increase in the time limit for bringing a claim from three to six months.

Does the future look rosy?

The latest proposals, particularly the German-style post-birth protection, are tinkering around the edges. A woman is already protected from pregnancy discrimination until she returns to work and beyond in relation to sex discrimination. Generally a woman is off for a year, so a four-month protection period will not prevent an unscrupulous employer dismissing her in the remaining period of absence. That said, the cumulative effect of all these initiatives (both legal and voluntary) is to push the diversity issue into the board room. And this is where the culture of equality starts.

Up and down the country, businesses with more that 250 employees are currently preparing for the publication of their gender pay gap and gender diversity statistics. How will gaps be explained? How does the gap rank with peers? What initiatives are being taken to reduce the gap? What targets are realistic? Who will rank as the employer of choice? What does this mean for equal pay claims? Should an equal pay audit be conducted? These are the questions that should be at the front of every employer’s mind as the time when they will be required to air their gender-pay laundry in public draws closer. The market, competition, shareholder activism, and the commercial imperative to attract and retain the best talent are all key drivers in pushing equality from the boardroom down through the organisation and beyond. And while concerns have been raised in some quarters about existing parental and gender protections being under threat due to Brexit, our domestic rights in this area, in fact, are greater than many European ones.

At a guess, I would say the future looks rosier.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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  1. The faster the gap is closed, the more enriched we will all be as a society. Encouraging recommendations. Thanks for sharing.

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