Positive action to address gender segregation at work



Employers in male-dominated sectors should consider using positive action to tackle gender segregation at work, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard yesterday.

Professor Chantal Davies from the University of Chester said recent research for the Young Women’s Trust on apprenticeships in male-dominated sectors such as construction showed many employers are put off using positive action because they are unsure it is legal and fear it might be reverse discrimination and they think it denigrates appointment or promotion on merit.

In fact, said Professor Davies, positive action is legally permitted in the UK to address clear cases of underrepresentation and disadvantage as long as it is proportionate. Similarly, employers can promote or hire a woman over a man in an industry where women are underrepresented if they are as qualified as each other and any action that is taken is proportionate.

Lack of clarity about the law and lack of consistent guidance from the government meant many employers were reluctant to take action which could improve the numbers of women in sectors where they were underrepresented, said Professor Davies.

She added that some employers try to address the underrepresentation of women in their sector by copying projects that work in other contexts without adapting them to their own organisation. She also spoke of the need for larger employers to engage with SMEs through the procurement process to help boost diversity.

The report for the Young Women’s Trust, ‘Equality at Work? Positive action in gender segregated apprenticeships’, also calls for national and employer targets to help women into male-dominated apprenticeships and says that, if targets are not met, the Government should consider imposing quotas. In addition, it says employers should provide women-only work experience, taster events, training days and mentoring to encourage more women to apply; and target job adverts at women.

Jess Phillips, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Committee, said she felt positive action was too weak. She would like to see employers urged to have 50% female participation in order to win certain contracts. She added that she would not have her job as an MP without positive discrimination by the Labour party.

The APPG meeting also heard from Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor from the University of Sussex who said universities were forward-thinking places, but at the same time could have very traditional working practices. His institution now had a policy where flexible working was the default option and it was taking a root and branch approach to tackling female career progression by changing the culture of the organisation. It was also doing outreach work with schools to get more girls into STEM subjects.

Beverley Sawyers, VP, Head of Operational Excellence – International Consumer & Network Card Business at American Express, spoke of the organisation’s work to get more women further up the career ladder through a variety of means, including mentoring, enhanced Shared Parental Pay, work on domestic violence, a new diversity council and sabbaticals. It was also partnering with other organisations, including the University of Sussex on women in STEM.

Other ideas discussed at the meeting included equalising parental leave policies for mums and dads, viewing parental leave in a similar way to an internship, understanding where the pressure points are for parents, reviewing and being creative about any measures used to tackle gender diversity, being careful not to use language that belittles men’s role as parents and expanding the Health and Safety Executive’s remit to include toxic behaviour in the workplace that puts women’s safety at risk.

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