25 January 2018
Experts are calling for employers to be held to account for the way their female workers are treated by third parties.
The Fawcett Society’s Sex Discrimination Law Review, chaired by Dame Laura Cox, a former High Court Justice, revealed that half of women have been subjected to sexual harassment at work.
Released on Tuesday 23 January, it called for a duty on employers to take proactive steps to protect staff, including from abuse by ‘third parties’, such as customers and contractors.
Evidence of the sore need for more rigorous protections for women at work was released on the very same day, as the Financial Times published the shocking results of its investigation into the exploitation of female ‘hostesses’ at an all-male Presidents’ Club charity event.
Attendees at the gala, for which female staff were told to wear underwear that matched their uniforms before they were paraded before a crowd of rich businessmen and officials, included the government’s Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi. The Minister has since told the press he left early, feeling “uncomfortable” with the proceedings, at which men are reported to have groped the female staff, including by putting their hands up their skirts. However, he has been criticised for attending the event in the first place, knowing women were banned as guests.
The Independent’s Chief Business Commentator James Moore responded to the FT investigation by pointing out that Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 originally required employers to take “reasonable steps” to protect staff from third-party harassment and could have helped to protect the women exploited at the Presidents’ Club event.
But the government repealed the Section in October 2013.
The Fawcett Society report called for legislation in the same vein to be put in place. Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the organisation, said: “…the time has now come for a greater responsibility and accountability to be placed onto organisations to prevent harassment and discrimination in the first place.”
“The chances are this will be happening to some extent in most workplaces so let’s move towards proactive action and require employers to do something about it,” she added.
As well as widespread reports of harassment, the report found that women are facing multiple barriers to progress in their careers, and access justice when their rights are breached.
The gender pay gap has barely narrowed in recent years, as many as 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers are pressured into leaving their job early, women are not protected by the law after they return from maternity leave, and the law does not currently cover discrimination against multiple protected characteristics.
Further, access to justice has become increasingly difficult as the number of legal centres that could help with tribunal cases has halved in the last decade. The report found that only 1% of pregnant women and working mothers take their case to tribunal after a breach of their rights.
A lack of transparency over unequal pay means legal cases can stretch on for years. Smethers said: “Women have literally died waiting. This is fundamentally wrong and why we need to apply a time limit to these cases.”
Lastly, the report found that Shared Parental Leave legislation is too weak to give many fathers the option of sharing childcare equally with mothers, and that statutory maternity and paternity pay is amongst the lowest in Europe.
Dame Laura Cox commented:
“There has been much progress for women at work since the arrival of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. But, in some areas, undue legal complexity and delay have hampered that progress. Over time the rate of change has been far too slow, or has stalled, or has even gone into reverse. There is therefore a powerful case for change, to ensure that our sex equality laws are fulfilling their purpose, that employers do more to prevent sex discrimination in the first place, and that working women have access to justice to enforce their rights where they need to.”