Leading article: Inequality and the limits of the law

Share

The sweep of social change in Britain over the past 30 years makes it hard to judge how far the first Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts are responsible for that change and how far they merely mirrored the changes in social attitudes that were already in train. That said, the Acts have provided a welcome buttress for the rights of women ever since, giving them legal grounds for challenging unequal pay, sexual harassment or unfair treatment.

In doing so, they have undoubtedly changed practices and assumptions. They also established principles of fair treatment that had the effect of opening a wider choice of careers to women. Two generations ago, women who went out to work were concentrated in nursing, teaching and factory jobs with few prospects. Now, as many women as men are entering such professions as the law and medicine.

But progress in some areas has been more impressive than in others. Women may have broken into many more professions, but they are disproportionately represented in the lower grades. The top posts, with their higher pay, influence and status, are still the preserve of men. Domestic responsibilities do not provide a complete explanation of this limited progress. The "glass ceiling" is more than a figment of women's imagination.

Complaints of sexual harassment have increased. While this may be because women have become more aware of their rights, the increase suggests a failure on the part of employers and managers to tackle the problem.

Despite, or perhaps because of, more generous maternity leave, impending motherhood brings a dismissal notice all too often. These are costs the Government and employers must learn to build into their planning.

It is in the de facto division of jobs into "male" and "female" and that all-important indicator, pay, where progress has been least impressive. Women and men are still concentrated in different sectors, with traditional "women's" jobs paid significantly worse than "men's", despite provisions requiring equal pay for work "of equal value". And guess who - disproportionately - defines equal value?

That the disparity in part-time pay has hardly shifted over 30 years is an indictment not only of employers, but of the trade unions that have failed to press this eminently just cause. But the 17 per cent disparity for equivalent full-time work is a failure, too. A 12-point narrowing of the gap since 1975 suggests that it could be another 40 years before full-time female employees enjoy equal pay.

As ever, legislation - even when as incontestably necessary as this - can only nudge attitudes in the right direction. To be effective, even after 30 years, it also needs to be used.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Arts Editor: The Great Character Actors of Football

David Lister
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players