Thirty years on, women still face discrimination in the workplace

On this day in 1975, campaigners celebrated as the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act came into force. Thirty years on, what has changed?

Thirty years after Harold Wilson's Labour government put in place the country's first Sex Discrimination Act, Britain's women are still suffering from unequal pay and, increasingly, sexual harassment in the workplace.

A substantial pay gap between women and men performing equivalent work still exists three decades later, while figures also show a disturbing rise in complaints of gender-related abuse and ill-treatment of female staff.

Today's anniversary of the groundbreaking 1975 legislation, intended to herald a new era of equality between the sexes, will be celebrated by women's organisations throughout the UK. But although the gap between salaries paid to men and women in full-time work has closed, in other areas progress has been far slower, and in some cases negligible. According to Jenny Watson, the new chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), "some issues, like unequal pay and sexual harassment, remain far too common".

Women working part time today earn nearly 38.4 per cent less than men performing equivalent work. In 1975 the figure was 42 per cent. For full-time workers the gap is 17.2 per cent compared to 42 per cent 30 years ago.

Women are also bringing more complaints for sexual harassment. According to the EOC, half of women in the workplace have complained of some form of sexual harassment. In a landmark case in 1985, Jean Porcelli established that cases of harassment were covered by the Sex Discrimination Act. She represented herself in an Edinburgh tribunal, losing twice, before finally winning the legal argument. But latest research released by the EOC suggests the sexual harassment cases that actually reach an employment tribunal are only the tip of the iceberg.

The EOC helpline received 647 calls on sexual harassment between 1 April and 25 November, a rise of 10 per cent on last year. It was the fourth most common cause of complaint, after pregnancy and maternity, equal pay and work-life balance.

The rise in discrimination is confirmed by the EOC's decision to launch investigations into the harassment of women in the armed forces and the Post Office. One in five servicewomen in the Navy, one in eight in the Army and one in 10 in the RAF has suffered sexual harassment. Recent cases taken to employment tribunals included that of Padraigin Byard, a navy pilot, who said she was constantly subjected to sexist, derogatory and rude remarks, which were dismissed as being part of the "maritime tradition".

In another case, Catherine Brumfitt won £30,000 after complaining about the behaviour of a male sergeant. The tribunal said there had been undue concentration on sexual matters and crude and offensive language.

The harassment of women at work may not be as visible as it was 30 years ago but it has not gone away. Cases over the past few years show that harassment has become more sophisticated and more subtle. While women must still endure verbal sexual abuse they now also face sexual harassment by text and e-mail.

On top of this, each year about 30,000 working women are sacked, made redundant or leave their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. Ms Watson said Britain's 30-year gender equality laws were failing to tackle the different causes of the pay gap and sexual harassment.

Earlier this year, Linda Weightman was one of more than 1,500 women health workers who won up to £200,000 each after an eight-year struggle for equal pay with male colleagues. She will share a £300m payout from an NHS trust in Cumbria in the biggest equal pay award on record.

Ms Watson said the current laws placed too much onus on individual women to fight for rights which should be guaranteed. "The existing laws rely on individuals to take their case to an employment tribunal," she said.

"It's time for employers to share more of the responsibility to bring about change by taking proactive steps to address inequality. Unless action is taken, individuals and employers will continue to suffer the damaging effects of the gender pay gap for at least another generation." She added: "Thirty years after the Sex Discrimination Act, we have made some real progress. We recently considered what a day without the Act would be like, and some of the situations women might typically face were truly shocking, like being forced to resign when they got engaged, being sacked as soon as they became pregnant, or working in environments where they were regularly subjected to blatant sexual harassment. It's a real victory that such behaviour is now clearly illegal, and women can appeal to tribunals for justice. But it's unfortunate that the onus of responsibility to bring about change has remained largely with individuals to bring cases."

The Department for Trade and Industry is working with Britain's unions to identify companies with the worst records.

Ministers have also begun a wide-ranging review into equality which include proposals to impose massive fines on employers who fail to protect women workers from discrimination.

Companies with the worst records would face investigation by the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

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