Creating a lasting change - an open letter
01 February 2018
2017 was the year women’s workplace issues dominated the public conversation.
As the year closed, the media spotlight was firmly focused on sexual harassment following the allegations against a number of high profile individuals in the media industry and the subsequent (far wider reaching) #metoo campaign. But it hasn’t just been about sexual harassment.
2017 started with the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee producing a report on high-heels and workplace dress codes. That followed a petition started by Nicola Thorp who was sent home for wearing flat shoes. It was signed by more than 150,000 people from across the UK.
Throughout 2017 we saw stories about equal pay and the gender pay gap becoming mainstream and making the front pages.
The fact that all these issues are aspects of a single problem can be obscured when looking at them individually, and not symptoms of a larger problem. Focusing too much on the gender pay gap or the lack of senior women leaders has led many to characterise this as a modern problem created because of the impact of maternity leave. It becomes the most ‘rational’ explanation.
In this context, the number of women (across all industries) who have raised concerns about sexual harassment through the #metoo campaign is a timely reminder that this is not the case. The experience of maternity leave and return does not explain the candid accounts shared by women about their experiences of working life in the UK. The issues are inter-linked. Sexual harassment is about abuse of power. The lack of senior women in the UK workplace means that the powerful are still predominantly male.
As 2017 closed, the Hampton-Alexander Review reported on FTSE Women Leaders making clear the need for immediate and sustained action:
“A step change is needed in pace. With just less than a third of FTSE 350 leadership roles going to women in the year, this falls short of what is required. Almost one in two or around 40% of all appointments need to go to women over the next 3 years to achieve the 33% target.”
It is partly the responsibility of government, but they can’t do it by themselves. The Equal Pay Act was introduced 48 years ago and we’ve had Sex Discrimination legislation for 43 years. While a lot of positive improvements have been made, we clearly need more than just adherence with legislation to make the changes people want. The House of Commons dress code report illustrated the challenge of looking to the law for a solution when it said:
“The Government has said the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread”.
As employment lawyers, our work was similarly dominated by workplace discrimination during 2017. In the course of working with our clients, many of whom have been forced to reassess their perceptions of gender equality within their own workplaces, we have seen clearly the frustration felt by employers and workers about the stubborn challenges women still face in the workplace. People want real and lasting change to happen now, and it’s important that we make sure that the opportunity is not lost.
The media has done a fantastic job shining a light on these issues, but it’s not their job to fix the problems. Their focus needs be on the new stories brought to light; responsibility for making a lasting change for the better lies with all of us.
We want to play our part in ensuring that there is a lasting change in the workplace. We want to help as many organisations as possible translate the impetus created by 2017’s media scrutiny of sexual harassment into long-lasting improvement in women’s experience of work.
What are we going to do?
It’s dangerous to atomise women’s workplace issues and deal with them in isolation without a holistic strategy in place. This is true for government and employers alike. Women’s experiences of work are different in different workplaces. The unifying theme is sex discrimination.
We acknowledge that creating a lasting change requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Just as with atomising the issues, atomising the solutions into legal, political, cultural and structural will lead to unsustainable and ineffective outcomes.
You can find free information and resources, as well as our programme of events, on our web page, www.lewisssilkin.com/alastingchange. We will start with a series of sector-focused roundtable discussions to honestly assess the issues and explore ways of achieving lasting change for key sectors of the economy, but that’s only the beginning.
Whether you would like ideas, resources, a discussion or support designing your workplace’s lasting change, we’d like to hear from you. If you are already doing great things to make a lasting change, we’d love to hear how you are doing it, and help you share that with other organisations who can benefit from it.
Lucy Lewis and Richard Miskella
A Lasting Change
Welcome to #aLastingChange, a useful resource for ideas, collaboration, information, legal insight and opinions on how we can create a long-lasting improvement in women’s experience of work and overall make the working environment a better place for everyone.