Since 1970, Acts introduced by the UK Parliament went some way to address discrimination. However these Acts did not succeed in creating complete gender equality. In 2010, the UK Parliament passed the Equality Act which has strengthened and replaced all existing equal opportunities laws, including those covering race and disability. Now, instead of lots of different Acts of Parliament we just have one Equality Act which tries to ensure that people in the UK are treated equally.
Under the Equality Act it is unlawful to discriminate (treat less favourably) anyone directly or indirectly because of a ‘protected characteristic’ of which there are nine:
The EHRC has the job of protecting and promoting human rights and equality and tries to make sure that the Equality Act is understood by employers and the public at large.
It is unlawful to pay someone less for doing the same job on the basis of their gender and to treat someone less favourably at work or in society because of their gender.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Equality Act is the clause that allows organisations to take ‘positive action’ where it has an imbalance of employees. For example, all public sector and large private sector bodies have to review their balance of male and female staff. It may have an equal balance of male/female workers but if men or women had all the best-paid jobs, this may not be equal.
If an organisation has an imbalance of any one gender, it is allowed to take action to create a more balanced workforce. Positive action can be through re-branding to make the organisation look more male/female-friendly on its website, advertising or other marketing as well as visits to schools and career talks where it is emphasised that the organisation is open to all.
Ultimately it can mean that in job applications, where a man and a woman are otherwise equal in all other respects, it can appoint either the man or the women on the basis of their sex to help balance the gender mix.
Positive action does not mean that an employer can offer the job to a woman (or someone from an ethnic background, since race is a protected characteristic too) purely to improve the company's gender balance. They must be able to do the job and have the appropriate skills and qualifications.