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Author: Dr Joe Baker
Date: 31 March, 2021
There has been talk of equality in the workplace for a long time. Many businesses and industries have dedicated significant effort to the subject, analysing the state of play in their company and putting people, policies and programmes in place to make improvements to their business. However, real, tangible and appreciable changes appear to be slow in arriving and often low on impact.
In this Board Brief we will look at many of the issues about equality and diversity in the workplace. We will discuss the terminology used and why it is important to understand them properly. We will discuss the difficult topic of equality of opportunity, and how some measures to address the disparities of opportunity can seem good whilst actually being problematic and, through the right intentions, actually exacerbate the problems. We will look at ways to go about making changes in the business, and how measurement may be the most helpful approach to understanding the problems and ensuring the changes you make actually do improve things. And, to conclude, we will offer a number of practical suggestions for things you may need to do to improve the diversity, inclusion and equity of your business.
But, before we examine the subject in depth, first we shall take a short look back at how we got to where we are today.
A short history of equality and diversity in the workplace
Before looking at the subject in detail for contemporary businesses and employers, a look at the recent history of equality and diversity in the workplace is highly valuable. It’s important to understand the issues that have arisen in the past, what battles have been fought and won, by who and why.
Women played a major role in the world of work during the 2nd World War in a way that had not been the case since the Great War. However, the return of the male workforce from the fighting in Europe saw a great reversal. The so-called ‘marriage bar’ steadily declined between the ‘40s and late ‘60s, but discrimination was still rife and women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant up to the late ’70s. The period after the War and into the second half of the Twentieth Century also saw extensive immigration to the UK from many of the British Empire’s former colonies. Employment law wholly failed to keep step with these dynamic changes in the British workforce, allowing discrimination to become endemic.
The first major piece of workplace equality legislation in the UK, the Equal Pay Act, was passed over fifty years ago, in 1970. It followed the landmark dispute and eventual strike in 1968 of sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant. The legislation was triggered by the actions of the 187 female Ford workers who went on strike, after their work was categorised as ‘low skilled’ rather than ‘more skilled’, resulting in them being paid 15% less than the rate of men given the higher category.
The dispute and its outcome was highly significant, ultimately paving the way for the UK’s entry into the European Community by aligning it with the Treaty of Rome that established the EEC.
The mid-70s saw two more significant pieces of legislation come into force bringing protections against discrimination. 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the UN, and the run-up saw a raft of work to respond to discrimintion against women, and so the first item was the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. This was followed the following year by the 1976 Race Relations Act. Both of these Acts were wide-ranging in their scope, concerned with discrimination in society more generally, but employment and workplace discrimination formed a signficant part of both pieces of legislation.
Although the need for funding maternity pay was established in the 1975 Employment Protection Act, the right of all working women to statutory maternity leave and pay was not included in UK law until 1993, when the UK was obliged to align itself with the European Commission pregnant workers directive published the previous year.
The second half of the 1990s saw a surge in workplace equality changes in law.
The legislation of the 1970s set out protections from discrimination on the grounds of race and gender, they provided few protections to people with disabilities. A large-scale public campaign sought to correct that, resulting in the Disability Discrimination Act, which became law in 1995.
1998 saw the introduction of a national minimum wage for the first time.
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