Leading article: Inequality and the limits of the law

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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.

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