Gender Equality: Why law can make a difference.

Last weekend I watched the film Made in Dagenham directed by Nigel Cole, which follows the labour dispute of the Dagenham Ford sewing machinists and the consequent strike of 1968. It was a timely reminder of the power both of individual action as it was a trigger causing the implementation of the Equal Pay Act 1970. It was also a timely reminder as a lawyer of the profound power that legislation can have.

We have since then had a raft of legislation aimed at ensuring a level playing field for both genders. This has included the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Statutory Maternity Pay Regulations 1986, Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999, Equality Act 2010 and The Shared Parental Leave Regulations 2014.

First the positives, it is very easy as a lawyer to be deeply cynical about the usefulness of passing legislation. However it is undoubtedly true that because of the legislation passed we have we now live in a far more equal society where it is possible for women to have careers and where they are much more likely to be treated as equals and  able to still have a quality of family life. Many of these things have had to be fought for and we are indebted as a society to the struggles of those like sewing machinists in Ford and so many others of achieving something that would have been impossible to imagine in the 1950s and 1960s. For me as a man I cannot help that thanks to these battles I get the gift of paternity leave and a much better workplace from which to have a family life as well, so thank you!

However it is a stark reminder to remember we have only come so far. There was still a gender pay gap 9.4 per cent of those in full time work and 19.2 per cent in part time work in 2014. Women are still far more likely to give up work and be full time carers than men. Many of those who give up work have no choice as child care is simply too expensive making the decision to work uneconomic. Similarly many professions, which have historically been seen as roles performed by women, are grossly underpaid, obvious examples include nursing, child care and care work which are all often at or just above minimum wage.

In researching this blog I found this useful podcast that looks at the question from an American perspective. What I found constructive about it was that it did that addressed the problem from an economic and evidence based analysis. My biggest take away from this was the necessity of creating a situation where women and men are able to make a positive decision to be able to work. The interviewee Claudia Goldin suggests the biggest impact to do this would be as well as providing baby/toddler care to create extended school days and terms which mirror the working hours and week.

So policy shapers, legislators, HR professionals and lawyers (and I include myself in this group) and all the others who can impact this area of our society,do not be afraid to stand up and fight for change and the best possible policies wherever you find yourself. Yes there can be a cost but it is worth it. For a slightly rose tinted view of what the world might look like see this article looking at the effect of ‘daddy months’ in Sweden by the BBC.

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