EOC admits cost of sex equality at work

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The Independent Online
Billions of pounds are spent fighting discrimination against women but there is considerable doubt over the economic benefits, according to a controversial paper published yesterday by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

In a document which may undermine the commission's campaign to show that equal opportunities make "good business sense", an expert in the field argues that there may a substantial "net costs" involved.

While there can be economic benefits from a family-friendly approach, there is uncertainty about the advantages of introducing polices beyond the already common flexi-time and part-time working.

Sally Holtermann, the author, implicitly warns against the recent commission strategy, fostered by Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the EOC, of emphasising the business benefits of anti-discrimination policies.

"There is a danger of a shift in attitude towards the position where equality of opportunity is no longer seen primarily as a matter of social justice, desirable in its own right, but merely as something that can be pursued if, and only if, it coincides with the employing organisation's own self-interest."

Ms Holtermann says the introduction of minimal family-friendly policies can be a "disguise for employers acting in their own self-interests".

Other arrangements, such as leave entitlements and child-care assistance, are much less common and pressure for them is meeting resistance from employers and government alike, according to the author.

While such opposition may exist because the benefit cannot readily be seen, it may be that informal assessments only have been made.

Ms Holtermann, writing in The Economics of Equal Opportunities published by the commission, says that where self-interest is not apparent the Government should enforce minimum standards.

A briefing to accompany the book, published by the commission yesterday, concedes that traditional economics based on the analysis of the single company inevitably lead to questions about the commercial viability of enlightened policies.

Authors of the book conclude that the case for equal opportunities rests largely on ethical grounds - a statement which calls into question the recent business-orientated policy of the commission.

The editors, Jane Humphries of the University of Cambridge and Jill Rubery of the University of Manchester, believe that the economic case for anti- discrimination policies becomes stronger if attention is switched away from the individual business to the economy as a whole. In contrast with the more bullish statements from the commission, a briefing paper to accompany the book will only venture that the pursuit of equal opportunities is "not necessarily incompatible with economic efficiency".

The findings will provide ammunition for commission officials who have privately been expressing misgivings about the emphasis on business under the leadership of Ms Bahl. Some senior officials believe that the best argument for fighting discrimination is that it involves a basic human right.

Ms Bahl said that the book was not intended to provide all the answers; it was meant to stimulate debate. There were many large national companies for which equal opportunities were central to their employment policies. The TSB bank calculated that it had been losing pounds 3m a year by not introducing a family-friendly system.