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

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Advisor - (HR, L&D) - Rugby

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and well established busi...

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea