Don't wait for legal change to stamp out harassment

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Gender discrimination is bad for women and bad for business, so it’s time to create real change

This week the Fawcett Society launched the final report of our review of sex discrimination law. Produced with the advice of a panel of legal experts and civil society groups, and chaired by former High Court judge Laura Cox, the review takes a wide-ranging look at the gaps in the protections our legal system offers women.

Reports of harassment at the Presidents Club's men-only fundraiser have shocked many. Yet we know that sexual harassment in the workplace is common. A TUC and Everyday Sexism Project poll found that half of the women questioned had experienced harassment at work.

Like the women working at the fundraiser, many people work in customer- or client-facing roles, or alongside contractors employed by someone different to themselves. Yet since the law was changed in 2013 employers don’t have responsibility to tackle harassment carried out by these third parties. Of course the first person who must be made responsible for harassment is the perpetrator. But employers should have a duty of care and can’t be allowed to turn a blind eye.

Our review calls for the reintroduction of the protections against third-party harassment, so that employers have to take reasonable steps to protect their staff from people that aren’t their direct employees. No-one is suggesting that bosses can stop harassment entirely, but taking the risk of harassment seriously can prevent it and decrease the frequency. No-one should have to work in an environment where they feel unsafe or are humiliated. Getting that atmosphere right is at the heart of tackling inequality but makes business sense too. Good staff will stay longer where they are supported and respected.

As we approach the deadline for gender pay gap reporting the review also considered the wider protections needed to create an equal playing field in the workplace. We found that pregnancy discrimination is widespread; government research estimates around 54,000 women are pressured to leave their job early every year after getting pregnant or becoming mothers. Protection against maternity discrimination ends when maternity leave ends, but often discrimination only becomes clear after a woman returns to work. We need to extend protection against pregnancy and maternity discrimination to six months after leave ends. The review also calls for an overhaul of the parental leave system so that more women and men are able to share the care of new children.

The gender pay gap is an indicator of the persistence of these and other inequalities and exclusions women face at work; from discrimination that holds them back to harassment that forces them out. As organisations prepare to publish their gender pay gaps there is an opportunity to explore the causes of the gap in their workplace and make changes that will close it. Fawcett’s review focuses on the legislative changes we need to achieve equality. But there is a great deal that employers can do right now. We are working with employers to support them through this process and to be trailblazers on gender equality.

The first step is to be open-minded; use the data generated to challenge your organisation’s perceptions and your own. Be rigorous, gather all the information you can and get into the nitty gritty of where inequality is emerging. Creating more equal workplaces requires senior commitment and accountability but it needs to be owned and driven by staff at every level. So engage employees and create allies out of the men in your organisation. Be prepared to try new ways of working. For instance, advertising jobs as flexible by default can shift expectations about ways of working and open up roles to those with caring responsibilities. Finally, be evidence-based and wherever possible evaluate the impact of what you’re doing. Focus your resources where they create real change.

Gender inequality is complex and deeply embedded. Tackling it requires investment, and legal and policy change from government as our review highlights. But employers don’t have to wait for the law to fill the gaps; they can lead the charge and be at the forefront of ending inequality once and for all.

Jemima Olchawski is head of policy and insight at the Fawcett Society

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