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OVERVIEW OF GENDER EQUALITY ISSUES IN UNITED KINGDOM

Prepared by Stockport college of Further and Higher Education, UK

INTRODUCTION

Legislation in force in the UK with regard to gender equality issues is well established and is principally concerned with (a) how men and women are paid and (b) employment and the provision of goods and services. The key legislation is force is the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). These Acts of Parliament have been more recently supplemented by the following further legislation: Part Time Workers Regulations (2000); Maternity Leave and Pay Regulations (1975); Paternity Leave and Pay Regulations (2003) and the Flexible Working Regulations (2003).

The Equal Pay Act (1970) gives an individual working in UK the right to the same pay and benefits, as a person of the opposite sex would expect to receive in the same or related employment. This is taken to include ‘like work’ or ‘work that is proved to be of equal value’.

The Sex Discrimination Act (1975) prohibits direct and/or indirect gender discrimination against individuals in the areas of employment, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services.

Maternity Leave & Pay Regulations (1975) entitle women to statutory leave and pay for up to 12 months and applies once a job has been offered and accepted. During the leave period, women are guaranteed an entitlement to return to their own job on the same terms and conditions under which they left. Paternity Leave & Pay Regulations (2003) regulate statutory paternity leave and pay for up to two weeks following the birth of a child.

Flexible Working Regulations (2003) give employees the statutory right to ask for a flexible working pattern, including working from home, reduced hours or different hours, for workers with children aged under six years.

GENDER EQUALITY MACHINERY

The gender equality machinery scheme (limiting it to the institutions, which are specifically dealing with gender issues) is provided in Picture 7.

In the Parliament, there is the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is appointed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons to consider matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom (but excluding consideration of individual cases); proposals for remedial orders, draft remedial orders and remedial orders. The Joint Committee has a maximum of six Members appointed by each House, of whom the quorum for any formal proceedings is two from each House.

The Committee has the power to require the submission of written evidence and documents, to examine witnesses, to meet at any time (except when Parliament is prorogued or dissolved), to adjourn from place to place, to appoint specialist advisers, and to make Reports to both Houses. The Lords Committee has power to agree with the Commons in the appointment of a Chairman.

The Stationery Office, by Order of the two Houses of Parliament, publishes the repor ts and evidence of the Joint Committee. All publications of the Committee are on the internet at www.parliament.uk/commons/selcom/hrhome.htm.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is the key institution involved in the promotion and practical implementation of gender equality issues.

The main functions of the Equal Opportunities Commission are:

  • Set the gender equality agenda through campaigns and promotion of good practice
  • Investigate into institutions where gender inequalities exist
  • Commission and publish research into gender equality issues
  • Take landmark cases under the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act (through employment tribunals)

Whilst it is independent from the Government, it is responsible to the Minister for Equality. There are 15 independent Commissioners (12 women and 3 men) plus nominated Chair and Chief Executive. Commissioners have as a team to be representative of all strands of UK society, e.g. private sector, public sector, ethnic minorities, disabled people.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is an independent, non-departmental public body although it does derive the majority of its funding from the Central Government. Apart from Central Government Funding, the Equal Opportunities Commission also derives a substantial proportion of its income from research foundations. It has recently been awarded funding to conduct research into the role of fathers in providing childcare in the home.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is then divided into the following departments: Campaigns, Information, Employment Policy, Secretariat, Strategy, Research and Information, Social and Public Policy, Corporate Services, Strategic Law Enforcement. Of the above, the first three are the most important and are responsible for the majority of the EOC’s activities.

The Commission does investigate complaints relating to gender discrimination, but it does not seek to prosecute where discrimination is found to be evident. Legal proceedings are usually undertaken by private individuals (sometimes supported by a trade union) through employment tribunals. The majority of cases therefore focus on employment related disputes and many of the claims are settled out of court because employers do not want negative public relations.

Victims of gender discrimination are able to access help, advice and support from the Equal Opportunities Commission via the following agencies at local level: Website (www.eoc.org.uk); Telephone Hotline; Publications; Citizens Advice Bureau; Job Centres; Community Centres and Public Libraries.

The Equal Opportunities Commission tends to get involved in employment related gender discrimination issues only when invited by a sympathetic employer who has identified a problem within its own working environment and is seeking help to address the problem.

The EOC provides supporting evidence where it has been asked to investigate suspected issues of gender discrimination, but it does not actually provide direct legal support or representation to individuals. The powers and independence of the Equal Opportunities Commission are vested in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Although it is heavily involved in research and awareness raising campaigns, it has powers only of recommendation. There exists no legal obligation for either the government or independent private/public bodies to implement its recommendations.

 The Women and Equality Unit (WEU) is headed by the Minister for Equality and responsible for promoting and realising the benefits of diversity in the economy and more widely. This includes taking forward proposals on civil partnerships and the future of UK equality bodies. WEU develops policies relating to gender equality and ensure that works on equality across Government as a whole is co-ordinated. WEU works with colleagues, both inside and outside Government, to bring about measurable improvements in the position of women and men, and to promote equality for all – which benefit society generally.

Social partners and NGOs. One of the most important NGO working nationally and internationally on gender equality issues is the Women’s National Commission (WNC). Established in 1969, the Women’s National Commission is the official and independent advisory body giving the views of women to the government of the United Kingdom. It is an umbrella organisation representing women and women’s organisations in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to ensure women’s views are taken into account by the government and are heard in public debate.

The WNC is based within the Department of Trade and Industry alongside the Women and Equality Unit, which was established in 1997 (then called the Women’s Unit) to support the Minister for Women.

The WNC is an advisory Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB), meaning it is fully funded by government but able to comment freely on government policy. In its unique role, the WNC liaises with, and is consulted by, the Women and Equality Unit as well as other government departments.

Trades Union Congress (TUC) publishes a series of free leaflets explaining employees’ rights at work and how to deal with common workplace problems. The TUC also runs a National Women’s Summer School. It is aimed at those with some experience and those new to union activity and focuses on: Organising, Campaigning, Negotiating with management, Speaking in public, Networking with women from other unions and workplaces, Meeting Senior women trade unionists and women MPs.

CHALLENGES TO GENDER EQUALITY

The Equal Opportunities Commission’s Corporate Plan (2003-06) has set down the following targets, which are needed to improve gender equality machinery in the UK:
 Target: Men & Women to be Valued Equally
Action:

  • To persuade employers to agree that action is needed to secure equal pay.
  • To secure changes in pay law if and where strengthening is needed.
  • Persuade others to accept that benefits and pensions need to be fairer for women and to show how this might be done.

Target: Fair Treatment, Non-Discrimination
Action:

  • Use the EOC’s legal powers to investigate organisations or areas of life where sex discrimination is persistent or happens frequently.
  • Support important individual cases on sex discrimination and pay.
  • Increase public awareness of discrimination law.
  • Reduce barriers to using the employment tribunal system, particularly for people on low incomes.

Picture 7. Gender equality machinery of United Kingdom

2003-2006