Friday, 27 June 2008

The Equalities Bill

It's now 12 months since vampire Gordon Brown stepped up as the UK's PM. He's had a difficult 12 months, one of the main criticisms being that he's not been able to explain his vision for the country, and even less to align the government's actions to this vision.

However, a key part of his strategy, as I commented last year has clearly been to increase social mobility: widening participation in the workforce.

And in this area at least, the vision is clearly being put in place - with the right to request flexible working, equal treatment for agency workers and the push for world class skills.

The latest initiative is the equalities bill.

The bill will try to tackle the ongoing gender pay gap by requiring public sector organisations (and any private firms doing public sector work) to publish details of their percentage difference in pay between men and women. I think this is sensible, and that it is also right to encourage rather than require private sector companies to provide similar reports. It's also been coming for a long time - with Denise Kingsmill's 2001 report and then her review into HCM reporting (Accounting for People).

Accompanying this is a move to stop companies from banning their employees to discuss what they're getting paid, which could involve some interesting cultural change.

More controversially, the bill suggests that firms should be allowed to apply a measure of positive discrimination / affirmative action to increase the proportion of women and people from ethnic minorities in their workforce, particularly at a senior level ("where candidates are 'equally qualified', it will allow employers to hire female or ethnic minority candidates" - I'm sure Hilary Clinton would have liked to have used this one!).

This idea is going to get quite a lot of flack. The actual legal change may be quite minor, but it involves a big psychological shift (which is of course the point).

But I would argue again that it is a sensible, and indeed overdue (being 30 years since the equal pay act), change. I was listening to a INSEAD leadercast (podcast) on the way home tonight and heard Sandy Ogg, Unilever's group HRD talking about their strategy to get more women onto their executive teams that they call "One More" - one more women on the board. It sounds a hugely sensible approach and one designed to "move the needle" much more than even the best development, coaching, networking etc.

And I think this is all that the government is trying to achieve.

In overview, the bill would almost seem designed to raise heckles from the UK's mainly right wing press. I think it's a courageous step that clearly links to Brown's vision and could signal that the government is finally getting back on track.