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As has been widely reported in the press this week, the Young Women’s Trust has released the results of their annual survey, which noted that, 100 years on from when the first women got the vote in the UK, there is still widespread inequality for young women. The survey, which questioned a representative sample of 18 – 30 year olds in England and Wales, found in particular:

• 19% of young women said they had been paid less than male colleagues who did similar work;
• 15% of young woman have experienced harassment at work without reporting this, compared to 8% who experienced harassment but did report this;
• 71% of young women and 56% of young men feel that women still face discrimination at work.

While it is of course important to  remember that these figures are based on the subjective opinions of those individuals questioned, rather than any empirical evidence of discrimination, it does follow close behind calls to review the sexual harassment regime in the wake of  the President’s Club Scandal, debate on whether use of non-disclosure agreements should be banned in cases of sexual harassment, the first mandatory gender pay gap reports in April this year, and against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement which still dominates the news.

It is likely that the publicity surrounding these incidents has increased awareness amongst young people who may more easily recognise inequality and discrimination. However, one key, and somewhat disheartening statistic in the survey, is that young people think it is more likely that extra-terrestrial life will be discovered before they are 40 than that gender discrimination will be a thing of the past or that there will be as many female MPs as there are male ones. It therefore seems that this increased awareness of the issue of gender inequality has not translated into an increase in optimism that this issue is being effectively tackled.

It is clear that employers do have a role in changing culture in the workplace. The report notes that 16% of young women know of incidents of sexual harassment at work which were not dealt with properly. Robust responses to such incidents are an important part of changing attitudes and encouraging those who experience them to report matters. Employers may find that the current climate has the effect of empowering those affected by these issues to come forward, so now may be an opportune moment to review internal policies and procedures on this issue.

However, there is clearly a limit to what employers can do. A good example of such limits can be seen when considering how to tackle the gender pay gap. Many employers who reported substantial gender pay gaps took the opportunity to outline in the narratives accompanying the statistics that the reason their gaps were so large was because women predominantly applied for the lower paid roles within the organisation. As noted in our previous Insight regarding the differences between the gender pay gap (which looks at the differences in average pay between men and women) as opposed to equal pay (paying men and woman the same for doing the same work), this is not always within an employer’s control, as much of this is attributable to trends in society as a whole; for example, women are still more likely to  work part time or give up their jobs to become unpaid carers, and  uptake of shared parental leave has been very low, meaning that the vast majority of leave taken following the birth or adoption of a child is still taken by women. Until these trends change across society as a whole, it is unlikely that employers will be able to bring down the gender pay gap, especially in sectors like retail which reported some of the biggest differentials It will be interesting to compare next year’s gender pay gap reports to this year’s and see whether there has been any notable progress.

To come back to the Young Women’s Trust survey, while it is disheartening to see how widespread inequality and discrimination is still perceived to be, it is important to continue shining a spotlight on this issue to ensure it stays in the public consciousness and to encourage those who have been subjected to harassment and inequality to come forward.  Reasonable responsibility clearly rests on employers to take such issues seriously and to deal with them sensitively and robustly and perhaps also more widely, beyond formal policy and procedure, to contribute to a change in organisational culture which promotes positive change on these issues.

If you have any queries regarding any of the issues discussed above please contact a member of the Stronachs Employment Team.

Annika Neukirch, Solicitor

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