Legal system ‘failing women’

The UK legal system is failing women and needs fundamental reform, including an extension of protection from pregnancy discrimination, tougher laws on sexual harassment at work and the extension of gender pay audits to smaller empoyers, according to a report by the Fawcett Society.

The report, which covers violence and harassment generally as well as workplace discrimination, says half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work, found evidence of a blame culture against women and “endemic” violence against women and girls in the UK, calls for greater transparency over pay and highlights research showing 54,000  pregnant women and working mums a year are pressured to leave their jobs early due to discrimination. Just 1% of pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases go to tribunal, the report says.

It is the conclusion of the Fawcett Society’s Sex Discrimination Law Review (SDLR) Panel which reviewed the UK’s sex discrimination laws in response to the risk that long-established rights could be eroded or weakened as a result of Brexit and leaving the EU single market. It also considered the effectiveness of current laws and how best to balance the rights of the individual with the responsibilities of the organisation.

The report calls for a number of changes to the legal system, including strengthening the laws on sexual harassment at work to protect women from harassment by third parties, making ‘up-skirting’ an offence, making misogyny a hate crime, making any breach of a domestic abuse order a criminal offence and extending protection from pregnancy discrimination to six months after maternity leave ends.

Dame Laura Cox, Chair of the Review Panel, said: “The evidence we received, of increasing levels of violence, abuse and harassment against women, was deeply disturbing. A lack of access to justice for such women has wide-ranging implications not only for the women themselves, but also for society as a whole and for public confidence in our justice system.”

The report has a raft of recommendations, including calls to:

• Extend gender pay gap reporting to employers with 50 employees or more and include data on other protected characteristics such as race, disability and LGBT status and introduce an indicative timetable to keep all equal pay cases on track and stop unacceptable delays
• Extend protection from pregnancy discrimination to the six months after maternity leave ends and increase statutory pay rates
• Fundamentally reform the parental leave system to provide for a longer, higher paid period of leave for fathers.
• Legislate to address discrimination based on more than one aspect of a person’s identity, following the example of Canada or Germany
• Strengthen the law on sexual harassment at work to protect women from harassment from ‘third parties’ who may be customers, service users or contractors
• Place more responsibility onto the employer to be proactive – introduce a new duty on large organisations to prevent discrimination and harassment in their workplaces
• Review the law on the admissibility of previous sexual history evidence
• Make misogyny a hate crime.

On employment Dame Laura Cox, Chair of the Review Panel said: “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.”

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society added: “The vast majority of pay discrimination claims settle before they get to the Tribunal. When they do go to the Tribunal pay discrimination claims can drag on for many years. Women have literally died waiting. This is fundamentally wrong and why we need to apply a time limit to these cases.”

“If we believe that gender equality is good for business, then we must also believe that discrimination and harassment are bad for business. 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.”




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