Hidden issues: discrimination in the workplace

Recent news has seen plenty of focus given to the role of gender and sex discrimination in the workplace. This February 2011 has seen ripples of applause and enthusiasm in response to Lord Davies’ review of employment of women in business. Calling for a dramatic rise in women in the boardroom – demanding that the FTSE 100 hold at least 25% women in top positions by 2015 – the review is a timely reminder that discrimination remains rife, and easily prosecuted, in modern business.

However there are plenty of recruitment industry professionals who claim that reviews and media presence isn’t enough. The high workload and success rate of specialised employment solicitors like Thomas Mansfield reminds us that equality legislation is simply a new way of looking at discrimination, rather than a solution to it.  Changes to discrimination laws in the past 5 years, most directly stemming from the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (established 2006) and last year’s Equality Act, have led to a new view on ethical conduct in the workplace.

The all-new Equality Act 2010 aims ‘to harmonise discrimination law, and to strengthen the law to support progress on equality’: the only question remains whether ‘harmonising’ all varieties of laws will lead to some offences being overlooked. Will this new law generalise and collapse the minute particulars of discrimination cases, with race being treated the same as religion, say?

Or will it give more power to the claimants – allowing the focus to be on discrimination and inequality rather than the particular ‘category’ it derives from? One interesting example of how this new legislation might work – or not – is in the recent case of Miriam O’Reilly, Countryfile presenter with the BBC who lost her job when the network decided to ‘refresh’ its look.

O’Reilly took the BBC to court on counts of age and sex discrimination – and won, but only for the age discrimination case. O’Reilly launched her claim in 2009, just before the Equality Act 2010 was introduced, and as such was forced to launch two separate cases: one for age and one for sex discrimination. Yet it is clear that part of the ageism debate, which she won in this case, was indeed dependent on her sex: she is not alone in being a female presenter in her 50s who has lost her job to be replaced by a younger woman and a much older man.

The hope with the Equality Act is that the claimant will not be forced to compartmentalise his or her complaints, as seen in the O’Reilly case. Did she lose out? Would the new legislation have allowed her to unite both claims? The hope is that ‘discrimination’ will not be labelled in fixed categories (sex, race, age and so on) by the law nor the workplace: a fairer recognition of the complex working nature of prejudice and inequality.

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