David Cameron may have generated a few headlines recently when he argued, in an article in the Times, that for those advocating gender equality “there has been a recent slew of good news”. But the reality is somewhat different. Let’s start with the fact that, in the last ten years, the number of women forced out of their jobs – either when they become pregnant or on their return to work after giving birth – has almost doubled.
That was the upshot of a controversial new report on workplace discrimination published by the Government on Friday. If you missed the news, that was exactly what the Government was hoping. Timing its release for the fag end of the week MPs deserted Westminster for the summer, most in a state of exhaustion, was a cynical attempt by the Tories to bury bad news.
And make no mistake – for working women, this report was very bad news indeed.
Notwithstanding its rather clunky title, “Pregnancy and Maternity-Related Discrimination and Disadvantage”, the paper included some shocking findings. Interviews with more than 3,200 women about their experiences of being pregnant at work, or returning to their jobs after giving birth, found that 11% reported having been dismissed, forced to take redundancy or treated so badly that they felt they had no choice but to resign.
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which co-commissioned the research, assuming that these trends are replicated across the entire workforce means that as many as 54,000 new mothers in the UK may be forced out of their jobs each year.
But what few seemed to notice was that the new figures showed we are moving in the exact opposite direction of progress. Ten years ago, the Equal Opportunities Commission produced a similar report on maternity rights in the workplace, with the much more snappy title of “Greater Expectations”. That report estimated that the number of pregnant women and new mums forced out of their jobs was around 30,000 each year. Ten years on, the number is close to twice that.
Not that this should ultimately surprise anybody, any more than should the Government’s attempt to bury the evidence. This is the same Government, after all, that has never missed an opportunity to put barriers in the way of women seeking redress for this kind of discrimination through the courts.
In the last Parliament, the Tories decimated civil legal aid, making it harder for working women to get advice on even their most basic rights. Next came the introduction of tribunal fees, which required women to pay up to £1,200 just to have their case heard, followed by several hundred more for an appeal if necessary. What this has meant in practice is that women who are members of a trade union are generally protected, while the 80% who are not union members are basically left to fend for themselves.
As predicted, sex discrimination claims took the biggest hit from these changes, with figures released earlier this year confirming an astonishing 91% reduction. And it isn’t as though the introduction of fees came in response to some sort of litigation fever. The 2005 report found that “whilst 17% of women who experienced problems considered filing a claim at an employment tribunal, only 3% actually did so”.
And now we can add insult to injury. A couple of weeks ago the Ministry of Justice – again, very quietly and while most of us had our backs turned – launched a consultation on proposals to close up to a third of the courts and tribunals in England and Wales.
The reason, in the words of the consultation document, is that “the majority of these courts are not used for at least two thirds of their available time, and one in three are not used three quarters of the time.”
Well, yes Mr Gove, that’s what happens when you slam the courtroom door in the faces of all but the wealthy. It should be obvious that those whose access to justice has been hit the worst by these changes are among those most likely to need it. If you’ve just been sacked from work, with no money coming in and a baby to feed, clothe and keep warm, it’s unlikely you’ll have a thousand pounds or so to spare.
If the new report achieves anything it’s to remind us of just how much further women still have to go before reaching genuine equality in the workplace.
45 years ago, as the landmark Equal Pay Act was passed into law by a Labour Government, its sponsor, Barbara Castle, explained that the law was less about eradicating discrimination in itself than it was about giving women the tools and, more importantly, the confidence needed to recognise and challenge it.
“I have no doubt that some employers will try it on”, Barbara said, warning that “undoubtedly pockets of discrimination will remain – unless women organise to put a stop to it.”
Almost half a century later it’s clear that discrimination exists in much more than just a few “pockets”, just as it’s clear who bears the blame for making it so much harder for women to challenge discrimination and enforce their rights. Last week’s report can ultimately have a positive effect if it inspires more women to take up Barbara’s challenge to stand up to discrimination wherever we see it.
So let’s organise. Let’s put a stop to it.