Back to the future – how equal are the women in your business?

26-01-2017

Next year will mark a century since women were given the right to vote.

Most of us balk when we look back, unable to believe this ever needed fighting for.

Yet a controversial report, published this week, has questioned how far things have really moved on in the intervening decades.

Since last week’s Trump inauguration, the media has been dominated by debates about equality. The start of his presidency has acted as a catalyst for women’s marches worldwide – largely sparked by speculation about his own behaviour and attitudes towards the ‘fairer sex’.

The new report, released by the Petitions Committee and Women’s Equalities Committee, has further fuelled this fire by shedding new light on dress codes and expectations of women in the workplace.

The report follows a campaign supported by over 150,000 people to change ‘outdated and sexist’ dress codes, led by Nicola Thorp who was sacked from her job as a receptionist for refusing to wear high heels.

The report suggests Ms Thorp is not alone and females across the country are being told they must wear high heels, colour their hair a certain way and wear revealing outfits in order to not only succeed in their chosen career, but keep their jobs at all.

So what does the law say?

An employer is legally allowed to ask its staff to dress a certain way. For example, it can require them to dress smartly in order to represent the business professionally, or to wear clothing that is considered safe for the job they are employed to do. However, a business’s dress code must not be discriminatory.

Where an employee suffers discrimination by his or her employer for any of these nine reasons – age, disability, gender, marriage and civil partnership, gender reassignment, race, religion, pregnancy and maternity/paternity and sexual orientation – they may have grounds to bring a discrimination claim at an employment tribunal and claim compensation. Unlike claims for unfair dismissal, there is no cap to the compensation an employer might be forced to pay if the claim is successful, and no length of service requirement.

The report suggests that despite the protection offered by the Equality Act 2010, a significant number of women still feel an unfair pressure to dress in accordance with outdated gender stereotypes, and in a way that doesn’t adhere to health and safety legislation.

Its authors conclude that women are struggling to break free from the archaic assertion that they are judged on their physical appearance and not on their capability, skills or experience.

What’s to be done?

According to the report, the action available to those being discriminated against is inadequate because of the fear of refusing to comply and losing their job, and also because of increased employment tribunal fees making it financially less worthwhile to pursue a claim.

It suggests a publicity campaign is needed to provoke change and raise employers’ awareness of what is and what isn’t discriminatory, along with reform to ensure equality legalisation is more effective in practice.

It is clear that, although the Equality Act 2010 has brought largely positive reforms to UK legislation, there is still an undercurrent of attitudes in the workplace that fall short of what is actually acceptable by law, and inadequate redress for women who fall victim to prejudicial attitudes.

Is your business at risk?

If this article has raised any questions in your mind, about how compliant your business is with equality legislation, why not get in touch for a no obligation conversation? We can help you check your workplace policies are compliant and aren’t putting you at risk of legal action and reputational damage. Or, if you are reading this and feel you are being discriminated against, we can help too. Get in touch via sara.brown@jameslegal.co.uk or 01482 974 470 for an informal chat.


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