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.


  1. John,
    I'm not sure that Brown is being particularly brave here. The bill strikes me as relatively superficial if one compares it with other European countries.
    I recently blogged about Norway.

    If Brown had said 40% of board members of a listed companies have to be women within a few years then that would have been brave. That's what the Norwegians did.

  2. Oh Jon, it's a Christmas present for the right wing press. Anything to be vitriolic about!

    What matters is whether it will make Britain a place we enjoy living in more.

    I believe that a "party of business" can only be credible if it also reaches out to the voters and says "under our government, you will find employment more enjoyable" and a "party of employees" says "yes we want better rights but because we have better rights, business will be easier, more fun and more prosperous for you too". The zero sum game has got tired!

  3. Thanks both.

    Jo, I think that's exactly what they're trying to do. Harriet described it as creating a country that is "fair for individuals, at peace with itself, diverse and outward looking".

    Tom, your post provides a great example that I think the UK needs to work towards. Norway is a different country though and although I understand they had not make voluntary compliance work, I don't think they faced the same degree of entrenched discrimination as the UK.

    I agree the step can be seen as relatively small, but it's a new step in a new direction, after decades of not permitting any discrimination (whether 'positive' or 'negative').

  4. Given what I know about the HR systems and quality of data in many organisations, I'm not sure that many will be able to comply with this legislation because they don't have the information avaiable. I take the stats in the White Paper with a pinch of salt too.

    Much of what gets published will be finger-in-the-air guesses.

    Incidentally, did you see this?

  5. Thanks for your comment Rick, and for highlighting your post as no, I hadn't seen (as usual, I'm behind on my google reader).

    Yes, I think this will be a challenge for many private sector organisations that want work with the public sector (the public sector's already been doing it).

    But then I think this, supported by frustration that nothing's really changed since Denise Kingsmill's first review when she recommended more reporting, together with an understandable reluctance to mandate equal pay audits across the board, is why the government has now done what they have.

    I look forward to reading your next post once you've been through the white paper (I need to do that too).

  6. In my opinion any type of discrimination is wrong. Where there is discrimination there will be victims. Is this just not replacing one group of victims with another? How can this make sense? Taken to its logical conclusion, organisations will be forced to positively discriminate in the recruitment process. Those organisations who avoid discriminatory recruitment practices will be forced to introduce them. Madness!

  7. Thanks Ray. I've never been a fan of positive discrimination either, which is why I don't think it would be appropriate to go quite as for as Norway (see Thomas' comment on this). However, I do feel that, given lack of progress, something's got to give.


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