Discrimination in the news
This week has seen a flurry of activity from MPs in respect of enhancing anti – discrimination laws.
Firstly, there was a report published by MPs in respect of potentially sexist and discriminatory dress codes.
This follows the case of Nicola Thorp. In December 2015 Ms Thorp was sent home from work without pay because she refused to wear high heels at work. In response to this Ms Thorp put together a parliamentary petition asking for it to be made illegal for employers to force employees to wear high heels. The petition attracted more than 150,000 signatures.
The committee MPs, as part of their review, received comments from over 700 women on their experiences of being made to comply with certain dress codes. Some of the troubling stories included women being told that they would be sacked if they did not wear high heels, women being told to wear short skirts to work and women being told to keep buttons undone. The MPs heard that these women’s male colleagues were not subject to the same rules.
MPs are now calling for the government to change the law to provide added protection to deal with sexist dress codes. MPs are also calling for the government to increase the compensation and fines for employers found to have discriminated against female employees.
Whether the government will act on the report is to be seen but it is worth pointing out that the Equality Act 2010 already provides protection in these circumstances.
It is unlawful for an employer to treat a women less favourably than it treats a male employee. By doing so an employer would be directly discriminating the woman. So disciplining a woman for failure to unbutton her blouse whilst not requiring male employees to unbutton their shirts would be an act of discrimination.
It is also unlawful for an employer to have a dress code rule which places women at a disadvantage to men, this is known as indirect discrimination. An example of this could be a requirement for all women to wear high heeled shoes but the same rule not applying for men. If there can be no justification for the rule, and it would seem very difficult to justify such a rule, then the employer would be operating discriminatory practices.
These laws have been in place for a number of years, however, Nicola Thorp’s experience and the Parliamentary report have highlighted this issue. Both are a timely reminder for employers who operate a dress code to consider whether they are acting fairly to both men and women. If on review, the employer realises that women are placed at a disadvantage or are required to appear in a certain way that cannot be justified then they may be being subject to discriminatory treatment.
The consultation comes following a study undertaken by the Women and Equalities Committee in August 2016. The study found that the number of new and expectant mothers who felt forced from their employment almost doubled from the numbers in 2005 to 54,000 women. The study also heard that 11% of all new mothers believed that they were left with no option other than to resign because of bad treatment received from their bosses.
As with the recommendations on discriminatory dress codes, it is a case of watch this space to see whether the government take any action on the recommendations and actually changes the law to enhance pregnancy and maternity rights.
Again it is worth pointing out that new and expectant mothers do currently have protection under the law on a number of issues including protection from dismissal, poor treatment and not being allowed to return to work. The law protects women from the start of their pregnancy until their return to work from maternity leave. Some of the legal rights women have are:
- Unfair dismissal, regardless of a woman’s length of service (employees normally need to have worked for an employer for at least two years before they can make a claim for unfair dismissal).
- The right not to be discriminated because of their pregnancy and maternity leave. This can include being overlooked for promotion, not being given a company wide pay rise or bonus or being selected for redundancy due to being on maternity leave.
- The right to return to their old job after maternity leave.
It is important for employers to be aware of their obligations towards their female employees who are either pregnant or on maternity leave so that they do not inadvertently do something that could be unfair and potentially discriminatory.
At GA Solicitors we would recommend that all employers re-visit their policies and practices in respect of both dress code and their treatment of new or expectant mothers to ensure that they are fair.
Discrimination claims are very costly in respect of management time and legal fees, there is no limit on the compensation that the employment tribunal can award, they can be very distressing and upsetting for everyone and they can be very damaging to a business’s reputation.
At GA Solicitors our employment solicitors have a wealth of experience assisting employees with discrimination law issues and they are happy to help and guide employers who may be concerned about their current rules and practices. Please do not hesitate to call either Rhiain Lewis (01752 513532 / firstname.lastname@example.org) or Rob Zacal (01752 513549 / email@example.com).