Middle-class women boost sex bias claims

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The Independent Online
Compensation to victims of sex discrimination has increased three-fold in 12 months with a growing number of middle-class women taking their employers to court.

A decision by the European Court of Justice to abolish the pounds 11,000 limit on awards at industrial tribunals has resulted in a considerable increase in cases taken by female managers up to director level, the Equal Opportunities Commission says.

Out-of-court settlements and awards by tribunals averaged pounds 18,732 in 1996 compared with pounds 6,481 the previous year.

Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the commission, said that women in professional jobs had clearly decided that the former limit of pounds 11,000, which had often resulted in compensation in the pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000 range, made the exercise pointless.

The increasing readiness of managers to bring cases to the commission gave equal opportunities a much higher profile. "Employers are increasingly recognising that discrimination can cost money," Ms Bahl said.

In a recent case, Christine Esplin, a pounds 42,500-a-year personnel director, received a record pounds 140,000 settlement after complaining that a male colleague on the board with similar responsibilities for merchandise was paid more than her.

Introducing the commission's annual report, Ms Bahl said that more companies were bringing equal opportunities issues to the commission rather waiting for court action. Organisations were increasingly keen to avoid the bad publicity, she said.

Tribunals were more liable to ask organisations to justify working arrangements which tended to discriminate against women as flexible employment agreements increased.

The EOC chairwoman said legislation was in urgent need of revision, and she believed the present government might be more "amenable" to change than the previous administration. The law was a "mess", she said, and cases had taken more than a decade to work their way through the judicial system. Because of years of delay, it will now cost the National Health Service pounds 30m to "equalise" the pay of speech therapists with pharmacists and clinical psychologists. Existing legislation placed a big burden on taxpayers.

Men were far more likely to complain about "women-only" services such as single-sex swimming sessions, car rescue services and parking spaces. The number of complaints from males last year was 470, more than in the previous five years. It is thought many of the issues were taken up by the UK Men's Movement, which says the commission's activities are biased towards the rights of women.