With reports that female employees are being advised to dress provocatively for video meetings to impress clients, lawyer Alex Christen explains why this is an act of discrimination and why we need to know our rights
In the age of remote working, raising awareness about the Equality Act is crucial, so we all know our employment rights and are empowered to raise issues. Many of us have read the news reports of women being instructed to dress sexily or provocatively, wear more make-up and style their hair for video calls, all under the guise of winning or pleasing clients. But few of these women have complained for fear of appearing like they can’t take a joke. Yet these comments are clear acts of discrimination under the Equality Act.
The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010 offering a single, clear legal framework to tackle discrimination against people with protected characteristics. These characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
Ten years on, as the coronavirus pandemic overhauls the way we live and work, the Equality Act is as relevant as ever. While the huge volume of people now working from home certainly brings opportunities for social change, the pandemic has also exposed inequalities in the distribution of health and wealth.
It’s unfortunately not a surprise that the lockdown’s economic fallout is widening disparity between the sexes. Statistics published this May by the Institute of Fiscal Studies already show women are more likely than men to take a pay cut or lose their job.
Equal pay for equal work
This imbalance is expected to worsen after the furlough scheme ends in October and is replaced by the Job Support Scheme. Designed to only support ‘viable’ jobs, the new scheme seems implicitly targeted at high-skilled sectors like manufacturing and construction. Sectors where retaining skills is more economical than making redundancies, but where women are still a minority.
In this context, it’s crucial employers remember their obligation under the Equality Act, to ensure the decisions they make in response to the coronavirus crisis do not discriminate against their employees. Men and women in the same employment performing equal work must receive equal pay, unless any difference in pay can be justified.
Since 2017, separate rules which complement the Act also require organisations with 250 employees or more to publish and report specific figures about the difference between the average earnings of male and female employees.
Ethnicity pay gap
While pay gap isn’t the cause of discrimination, it is sometimes a symptom. Measuring its evolution in the years to come will certainly help assess the extent of the damage caused by pandemic, and ultimately help change mindsets. It’s the same reason why calls for the introduction of ethnicity pay gap reporting have gained momentum in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Recent disappointment over the government’s decision to drop the Gender Recognition Act proposals (for people to have a right to self-identify as a different gender without going through medical diagnosis) shows equality legislation can still go much further – with the right support.
Hopefully, the government’s plans to ‘build back better’ over the next decade will not forget that protecting individuals from unfair treatment is a key part of creating a fairer and more equal society.
Alex Christen is an employment lawyer at Capital Law ( a Cardiff and London-based law firm)