Equalities Bill announced

// 26 June 2008

The Government’s Equality Minister, Harriet Harman, has said she wants to tackle entrenched pay discrimination against women and to create a workforce more representative of society.

Ms Harman defended plans to make it legal for firms to discriminate in favour of female and ethnic minorities job candidates and said firms should be able to choose a woman over a man of equal ability if they want to.

When asked whether the proposals would lead to discrimination against white men, she said companies would not be forced to use positive discrimination.

Female part-time workers still earned 40% less per hour than their full-time male counterparts, Ms Harman said. "Do we think she is 40% less intelligent, less committed, less hard-working, less qualified? It’s not the case. It’s entrenched discrimination. It’s allowed to persist because it’s all swept under the carpet."

The Equalities Bill will also seek to stop people being denied NHS treatment because of their age, and age discrimination will be outlawed in the provision of goods and services, such as holidays and insurance.

The full story is over at the BBC website; there’s also coverage at Reuters UK.

(Cross-posted at bird of paradox)

Comments From You

Sarah // Posted 26 June 2008 at 12:30 pm

“firms should be able to choose a woman over a man of equal ability if they want to”

I was a bit confused about this – surely employers can already do this? It’s when the candidates are not of equal ability (or experience or qualifications or whatever) that you start getting into ‘discrimination’, positive or otherwise.

Cara // Posted 26 June 2008 at 12:57 pm

Sarah, yes I agree that is confusing.

Hmmm, I’m not sure you could ever say two people were of exactly equal ability anyway. There has to be something, even if it’s just that one person has a month more experience or can use a computer program with slightly more proficiency.

I would have defined discrimination as choosing, for example, less qualified men over better qualified women too. But I’m not sure that’s the best definition. It seems more about *how* ability is assessed. Classic example: woman doesn’t join in “team meetings” to play golf and go to strip clubs, hence is judged “not a team player” – grrr. Or working mums being judged as not as committed because they always leave on the dot of 5.30 because they have to pick up the kids. Even if they have been as productive as their male colleagues who waste time chatting and surfing the net, and hence have to stay till 7 to complete their work – or stay late when they don’t need to just to impress. Again, grrrrrr.

Of course, what matters is the *perception* of someone’s ability – which doesn’t always match their true ability. Employers do not always assess ability objectively. That I think is where discrimination comes in. Particularly where candidates *are* obviously equally qualified and selection comes down to more nebulous personality traits…the “who will fit in here” type of judgement. And if it’s a white, macho environment of course women/ ethnic minorities won’t “fit in”! The point is that you *can’t* choose who you work with and being diverse doesn’t prevent there being friendly relations, just because someone is different to them some people are almost scared of them it seems – it’s this kind of blinkered attitude that is the problem.

I guess decisions can be justified by these very vague type of judgements about “who will fit in” either way, it’s not like the board is going to say “oh we chose the man for promotion because, well, we’re sexists” but mutter about who “fits in”, “is a leader”, “is a team player”, “is committed” etc. etc. Since discrimination is already illegal, they *can’t* just say they chose a man because they wanted to. Discrimination works in subtle ways.

Thus, what the proposal would do is make it legal to say, well, we want to encourage more women to succeed, so if we are having difficulty choosing between two candidates who we like equally, we may as well go for the woman. Which would be as illegal as the opposite under current laws. I agree with this, but I’m not sure it will help much in practice since discrimination is subtle. It doesn’t help where employers *don’t* view people as equally qualified, an assessment that can be very subjective, as I argued.

Cara // Posted 26 June 2008 at 12:57 pm

Oh and would this legislation cover gay people? I can’t imagine this type of environment being too friendly to them, either.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 26 June 2008 at 1:18 pm

i always thought it was quite discriminatory on forms for uni and stuff to ask gender and ethnicity to fight discrimination. seems to me that its pretty much choosing people just to keep numbers and look good.

surely if you pick without knowing you will pick those best for the job? then again i understand the need to encourage people to feel they aren’t going to be discriminated against.

i suppose work and education should correlate at least, seeing as the men to women ratio on science uni courses, and who actually become scientists reverses. no point getting peoples hopes up to smack them down

Qubit // Posted 26 June 2008 at 1:55 pm

I disagree with any form of positive discrimination in the workplace. It will just lead to the minority group not being respected and dismissed as having just got their job due to being a minority. I think forcing postivie discrimination will push back equality as it will lead to resentment.

At the same time saying a firm should be able to employ a woman over an equally qualified man and listing this as positive discrimination implies that being a man makes you superior and that if possible a man should always be chosen over a woman. If two people are equally qualified the firm has the right to employ whichever one it feels most suitable for the role. To be honset I think a firm has a right to employ a less qualified person over a better qualified person if they feel the person can fill the position better.

Discrimination can’t just be dealt with by a change in the law. It is a change in attitudes that need to filter through the system. Simply changing the law will cause resentment and harm attitudes to equality.

Sarah // Posted 26 June 2008 at 2:13 pm

Cara – yes I agree there are unlikely to be cases in reality where two candidates are identical except for their gender, that makes the statement even more meaningless really. I just don’t know what Harman was trying to say there.

Laurel – I always thought the gender/ethnicity information on application forms was just for monitoring purposes, and wasn’t actually available to the people making the decision about your application. Also I’m fairly sure the information is optional, at least for most job applications, I can’t remember about uni. Though these things are usually apparent once you get to the face-to-face interview stage.

I agree with Qubit that it’s a change in attitudes that will make the real difference, however these things are frustratingly slow to change. Still, we’ve come a long way in terms of attitudes towards women (and disabilities, people from different ethnic groups etc), the occasional backlash not withstanding. It’s just that we still have a long way to go as well.

Jess // Posted 26 June 2008 at 2:38 pm

I am not completely opposed to positive discrimination – sometimes it is necessary, as an initial measure to just get people in the door.

Yes, it then can be used against people, but at the same time I think that anyone going into a male-dominated, white-dominated workplace, on a back footing (paid less, valued less), is going to get a lot of shit anyway, therefore why not use systems like quotas and positive discrimination to kick start the system? It seems to work well in Norway, with the female board members thing. It might cause some resentment initally, but I just don’t think that workplaces will make this change by themselves.

However, this is a moot point, as positive discrimination is illegal in this country – Harman isn’t actually calling for it at all. I think what she’s saying is that, yes, with a choice of two suitable candidates it’s OK to opt for the woman for diversity reasons. I think it probably is true that many employers would hesitate before doing that.

Leigh Woosey // Posted 26 June 2008 at 3:35 pm

Anybody notice the appalling deluge of comments of the BBC site complaining about being discriminated against for being born a white male? It’s like they didn’t even read the statement from Harman. Just for the record. I am a white cisgendered male and those commenters do NOT represent me.

Qubit // Posted 26 June 2008 at 4:15 pm

I feel the comments prove my point that any positive discrimination will just lead to further racism and sexism and this bill isn’t even stating something new.

It is amazing how many commentors seem to miss the statement that if a head teacher wanted to employ an equally qualified male over a female they should. In face that one is easy to agree with as both girls and boys need good male and female role models. Similarly the need for male nurses is understandable as prefering one gender over another for such scenarios is natural.

Sadly while I can easily agree with positive discrimination for white males in fields where they aren’t prevelant I know the abuse that would come from supporting any such action for women or ethnic minorities would cause more harm than good due to the backlash and would hurt workers in the field.

Intriguingly having done my undergraduate at a reputable university I begun to notice how predomentantly white and rich the population was. I’d say in this case positive discrimination was required although I think it would be hard to impliment.

Liz // Posted 26 June 2008 at 4:25 pm

I object to the term ‘positive discrimination’ and much prefer the American idea of affirmative action even though they are much the same thing.

I don’t think affirmitive action makes racism/sexism worse – I think people’s racism and sexism makes affirmititve action seem as if it is in some way unfair to white men, when infact everything is skewed in their favour to begin with. Obviously taking lesser qualified candidates on identity grounds is not ideal, but that’s because the world is not ideal and it’s like a sticking plaster measure, something to try and hold the wound together while larger forces heal the body. It won’t get rid of the problem in itself, and if it’s not done properly it could make things worse, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.

Chris Rock has some great comedy stuff about white men talking about how they are losing out ‘Well if you’re losing, who’s winning?’

Cara // Posted 26 June 2008 at 5:24 pm

Actually I think Jess is right. This isn’t really positive discrimination at all. Discrimination is different to positive action. As in my framework, “positive” discrimination would involve women/ ethnic minorities etc. being the unwitting recipients of cultural privelege, arising from a set of assumptions about “the way things are”, that they are assumed to be better at certain things. This is why I think “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” are nonsense concepts.

(Although I agree that patriarchy can hurt men, e.g. as someone pointed out, men are discriminated against in childcare careers. I think calling this reverse sexism is a misnomer though, because it is not as if prejudice has reversed direction – it’s simply that sexism has adverse effects on men too).

“However, this is a moot point, as positive discrimination is illegal in this country – Harman isn’t actually calling for it at all. I think what she’s saying is that, yes, with a choice of two suitable candidates it’s OK to opt for the woman for diversity reasons. I think it probably is true that many employers would hesitate before doing that.” exactly.

Having read the proposal – thanks zohra – yes, it does include gay people.

Danielle // Posted 26 June 2008 at 6:21 pm

Thanks to Zohra for posting the actual links. I was also confused about why there was a need to say that a woman candidate can be selected ahead of a man of equal ability (surely already possible). It seems that although presumably it is possible in practice, it would technically be illegal to select the woman candidate (even given she was of equal ability) purely because she was a woman (i.e. in order to try and redress inequality). The paper seems to state that they want it to be ok, all other things being equal, to try and increase diversity.

How on earth this would work in practice, I’m not sure. How can you really prove the underlying reason selecting one of two equal candidates?

However, I quite like her calls for more transparency, and the general taking on board of the idea that something needs to be done! And the stats on pay equality in government make interesting reading (particularly that the government equalities office has women paid 4% more than men – bit of an overshoot there!)

james // Posted 26 June 2008 at 10:58 pm

Just remember that what is actually illegal is sex discrimination, and all become clear. If you’ve a man and a woman as candidates and you make a choice for no particular reason, then no-one was discriminated against because of their sex and there’s no problem. However, if you ‘opt for the woman for diversity reasons’ that is sex discrimination – since the man was treated less favourably on account of being a man – and you’re in trouble.

The positive discrimination thing is a distraction which is being used rather jesuitically. Positive discrimination (prefering less qualified candidate because of their sex) is illegal in this country and you’re completely right that Harman isn’t actually calling for it at all. BUT- the reason ‘positive discrimination’ is illegal is because ‘positive discrimination’ is a subset of ‘sex discrimination’, and ‘sex discrimination’ is illegal. There’s no ‘Positive Discrimination Act’, but there is a ‘Sex Discrimination Act’.

Harman is calling for sex discrimination, which is currently illegal.

Cara // Posted 27 June 2008 at 12:17 pm

I am getting more and more fed up with the reporting of this in the media.

All the proposal would do is to remind employers that, hey, women and ethnic minorities exist.

As I said, not sure it will work in practice – except where organisations do want to increase diversity but are worried that, in the case where they have two candidates who are equally suitable and go for the woman/ ethnic minority person then they would be technically breaking the law. Although they could always have justified that decision with some other reason.

Talking of moronic reasons to hire someone…saw on another forum that some idiot chose employees based on what their favourite film was…GRRRRR. Legislating against this kind of interview, you know, white middle class man comes in, seems like a nice chap who wil “fit in”, is asked a couple of token questions then have a jolly good chat about films, golf and strip clubs or whatever, would achieve a lot – govt. should be doing that instead. I guess I do work in the “cushy” and “PC” public sector but I have always assumed that job interviews actually ask, you know, work-related questions and that all candidates get the same questions, and their answers are judged objectively.

Ha. Naive of me.

Qubit – I think anyone who

a. is bored/ bitter enough to wonder how their colleagues got their jobs

b. goes around assuming that women and ethnic minorities got their jobs due to preferential treatment *which will still be illegal anyway*

has got problems.

Most normal people wouldn’t think such a thing, surely.

zohra // Posted 27 June 2008 at 12:20 pm

Send your views to the Minister herself via: http://www.dods.co.uk/poll/index.html

It’s a 5 question survey by Harriet Harman to assess reactions to her proposals. Get in there!

David Space // Posted 29 June 2008 at 12:34 am

Why is it relevant to show that part time women’s wages are 40% below FULL-time men’s wages? Surely we need to look at the difference between part time workers of both genders? There is an interesting article on this issue here in the Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4221357.ece

Dave // Posted 29 June 2008 at 12:41 pm

“Classic example: woman doesn’t join in “team meetings” to play golf and go to strip clubs, hence is judged “not a team player””

“white middle class man comes in, seems like a nice chap who will “fit in”, is asked a couple of token questions then have a jolly good chat about films, golf and strip clubs or whatever”

@Cara – you seem obsessed with both golf and strip clubs?! I can honestly say, having worked for 20 years in various jobs, I have never had a conversation with another man about either. As Winston Churchill said, golf is a waste of a good walk. As far as hiring employees goes, my only criteria for selection is that they can do the job properly.

Aimee // Posted 29 June 2008 at 1:56 pm

“Why is it relevant to show that part time women’s wages are 40% below FULL-time men’s wages? ”

Firstly, because women are more likely to HAVE to undertake part time work as the onus of childcare is more often than not on women. Men are much more free, in societal terms to work full time and therefore earn more money. What this effectively means is that half of the work a lot of women do goes completely unrecognised and completely unpaid. Saying that, I think it would be reasonable to compare the full time wages of men and women as well.

Cara // Posted 29 June 2008 at 5:53 pm

Dave – no, mentioning both of those things twice in three posts is hardly an obsession.

It’s simply shorthand for that type of discriminatory attitude.

Well done for choosing people on their ability to do the job *sarcasm* that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? (Notwithstanding my point that the judgement of ability can itself be influenced by irrelevant factors such as gender and ethnicity, which you seem to have missed).

Just because you have not seen discrimination doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

I hope that clears things up.

Did you have a point, or have you just come to make random attacks on people? I suggest you read the guidelines above the comment box before posting again.

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