Workplace Discrimination Matters Part One: Internalised misogyny, insidious discrimination and sexual harassment

With fears that newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, aims to erode Britain’s employment rights once we’ve finally left the EU, SSZee Media plan an incisive, in-depth look at workplace discrimination. Over the next 11 weeks before the 31st October, when we are assured that we will ‘Brexit’ (whether we like it or not), SSZEE Media will cover discrimination on grounds of religion, race, gender, motherhood, LGBTQ status and disability.

Starting with sexual harassment, we’ll look at the state of discrimination against women in the UK – how much of an issue is it and what are leading companies doing to tackle the issue? Tannice Hemming finds out…

We’ve come so far since the days of the 1970s and 80s when women were routinely groped in their offices and expected to like it. Or have we? Most of us like to think we have: even the least enlightened workplaces assume that it couldn’t happen in their business.

So why, earlier this month, did actor and activist Emma Watson partner with charity Rights of Women to launch a brand new helpline specifically to deal with sexual harassment?

A heinous statistic for 2019’s workforce

Shockingly, 1 in 2 women have faced sexual harassment within the workplace. It’s such an astounding figure that I’ll say it again – that’s 50% of women who work, according to the TUC. Given that figure, it’s all the more shameful that the new helpline is the only one of its kind. Launched just 10 days ago, the helpline is open just 4 hours a week, on Monday and Tuesday evenings (call 020 7490 0152), with extended opening times planned.

Even more staggering is the paucity of legislation to tackle the issue – something the TUC, along with Amnesty International and a cadre of other lobbying organisations and charities – is working hard to rectify. A government consultation on the issue is in the pipeline, but ahead of its launch, TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, is pressuring the government to ensure employers take responsibility for the prevention of sexual harassment by making it a mandatory, legal duty. This would force employers to set out their sexual harassment prevention policies and put all employees through compulsory training.

Following cases from across the world, new legislation to fight sexual harassment can’t come soon enough. Late last year, one Australian woman won her sexual harassment case and $10,000 ASD (around £6k) against a co-worker who made lewd comments about a local rapist; speculated that she was hired solely due to her disability and gender and made inappropriate comments about his colleagues’ sheer blouses, saying [the work] was “hard all day long, if you get what I mean”.

Insidious workplace prejudice and systematic, unquestioned misogyny

Discrimination against women in the workplace isn’t always as obvious as sexual harassment – it’s quite often more insidious. The differing ways in which bigotry and inequity permeates employment are multitudinous. From what women wear to work, right down to overlooking women of childbearing age for promotion (or discriminating against mothers, to be covered in an upcoming article in this series), tackling the difficulties that women face seems a truly sisyphean task. When compared with the egregious policies of times gone by, it feels like we’ve made huge strides, but there’s still so much work to do.

Up until March this year, women who worked for airline Virgin Atlantic were mandated to wear short skirts and makeup (which rather took focus off the gender pay disparity of 30% more for male staff, revealed by the Guardian, a figure even worse than Japan’s 27.7% gender pay gap, rated by the World Economic Forum as a paltry 110th in the world for gender equality).

Last year’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) gender pay gap report – which all companies with more than 250 employees must reveal figures to – revealed vast gulfs between women and male pay rates, with Ryanair a stand-out culprit with a whopping 72% pay chasm. Just 3% of their top execs are women.

That fighting spirit: court disputes and lawsuits

The news isn’t all bad though – as companies are, since 2010, compelled to report these figures, several companies are taking on the challenge and reviewing their pay rates and general policies. The EHRC’s website details several companies taking a stance, with retail giant Pets at Home providing employees with the choice of more flexible work hours and consulting and technology services behemoth Cap Gemini focusing on recruiting top female talent for their senior roles via their Active Inclusion plan.

However, it takes more than large corporations to look closely at their policies as not all companies are as enlightened. Sadly, some organisations need a swift kick up their male-dominated backsides and their hands forced by court action.

Walmart, the US owners of the UK’s ASDA chain, faces almost 100 court cases from its American workforce, who cite a lack of ‘upward mobility’ available to female employees, amongst other problems. These cases follow the Supreme Court ruling, in 2011, that the class action suit, Walmart vs Dukes (launched back in 2001) was actually far too large of a suit and compelled individuals to file their own law suits.

In terms of big American companies, there are few larger or more recognisable than Disney, also facing gender pay gap discrimination cases as of last month. Every division of the corporation has come under scrutiny. Disney of course deny the claims, citing their “robust pay, equity practices and policies”.

The future of women in the workplace

It seems that, with the requirement to report gender pay inequality and an upcoming government consultation on thwarting sexual harassment, things may be looking up. But identifying those structural inequalities is really just the first step towards a more equitable work life. There’s a lot still to achieve – indeed women are still primarily the main care-givers (only 1% of those eligible are availing themselves of shared parental leave) – they’re also 10 times more likely to take time off for dependents than men according to a 2014 US study. Women are even feeling guilt about neglecting their household duties – worried they’re asking too much of their partners – and suffering with poor health as a result.

Given that it’s still headline news that major bank RBS is now led by a woman (the first bank to do this) and the appalling fact that we still haven’t implemented the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), originally ratified in 1986 by Thatcher, it seems we have miles and miles to go.

What’s your experience of workplace discrimination? Tweet @sszeemedia with your comments and feedback on this crucial issue now.

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