Sunday, March 11, 2007

Does the Gender Equality Duty impact your business?

I have spent most of this weekend reading and responding to the draft Gender Equality Schemes for Hull City Council and the Hull Teaching Primary Care Trust (National Health Service). If you are from outside the UK that probably means very little - in fact from my conversations with business people in the UK it also means little to them - but the government is implementing the biggest change in sex discrimination legislation for 30 years - and it is going to impact everyone.

At present sex discrimination is the domain of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and in the Equality Act 2006 provision was made to impose a Gender Equality Duty on all public bodies such as central and local government, police, armed forces, fire, health, education and most government sponsored bodies like the Regional Development Agencies and the Big Lottery which provide funding for private and voluntary sector organisations.

In essence the Gender Equality Duty requires all public bodies to take action to eliminate sex discrimination and harassment and to promote equality for women and men. Of particular value to me is that this also applies to women and men who are undergoing gender reassignment including those who have and those who intend to. In the past it was up to someone who was discriminated against to take action - now it is up to public bodies to to take positive action to prevent it from happening in the first place and to demonstrate though a Gender Equality Scheme and action plan what they have done and monitor their actions on a regular basis.

Last year similar schemes were introduced for Race and Disability, and at the end of the year responsibility for all this will move to the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights when we can eventually expect the duties to be extended to include the three new discrimination areas of Faith and Belief, Sexual Orientation and Age.

Why is the Gender Equality Duty important to you if you do not work on the public sector? Public bodies also have a vicarious liability for the actions of organisations delivering services on their behalf and they are also required to ensure that suppliers comply with the duty.

Lets consider an example. The government is very keen to break down what appear to be stereotypical gender roles. At present, according to the latest EOC figures, 90% of people employed in Construction are men and 99% of apprenticeships are men - at the same time 79% of people employed in health and social work are women and they account for 87% of current apprenticeships - this indicates that far from encouraging men and women into non tradition employment, the situation is getting worse. Imagine now that you are a construction company bidding to build a new hospital wing - after April 6th that tender will probably require all construction companies to show how they are encouraging more women into the trade. Or perhaps you run a care facility funded by the council or PCT - after April you may have to demonstrate how you are encouraging more male employees.

The same applies if you simply supply to public bodies - the EOC is recommending that all companies that have had a serious Sex Discrimination Act tribunal finding against them be struck from the tender list unless that can prove they have resolved the issue. Basically it means that if you want government funding, or to sell to public bodies you are going to need to be able to demonstrate that you have robust equal opportunities policies in place and that you are regularly monitoring them.

This is not all going to happen immediately - the Duty comes into force on April 6th and public authorities then have three years to implement their strategy - along with the Race and Disability duties - However this will impact virtually everyone and I suspect that we will increasingly see a tougher approach by tribunals in applying the current discrimination law, all of which is to be reviewed this year in a Discrimination Law Review prior to the establishment of the Council for Equality and Human Rights in October. In addition the Sex Discrimination Act will be amended before 21st December due to a European Directive regarding goods and services discrimination.

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