If you think you’re being treated unfavourably at work because you’re a woman, it can be daunting to know what to do about it – or whether to do anything at all. If you’re in that position, take these steps to help you decide.
Many employers “talk a good game” on issues affecting women at work. However, there is often a disconnect between the slick messaging and the reality on the inside.
Sometimes problems are overt, such as blatant discrimination, harassment and bullying – often in male-dominated, “boys’ club” environments. However, discrimination against women is often far more subtle.
- Lack of progression/representation at senior levels in spite of relative parity at more junior levels in the organisation, with management insisting that this can only be addressed on a long-term basis.
- Losing out on opportunities for progression after pregnancy/maternity leave.
- Part-time workers (who are predominantly women) receiving disproportionately lower pay, quality of work and /or opportunities for progression.
- The gender pay gap remains unresolved, and is particularly wide in sectors such as finance and insurance. Some reports also suggest that the gap is at its largest between ages 50 and 59. Again, companies often shrug their shoulders and say that it will takes years, decades or even generations to resolve this.
- Focus is understandably often on men discriminating against women. However, some women in senior positions “kick away the ladder” and either do not provide proactive support to female colleagues or in some cases actively obstruct their progression.
Why hasn’t there been more progress?
Sex discrimination has been unlawful for decades, and there has been compulsory gender pay gap reporting since 2017. So why hasn’t there been more progress?
A key reason why these problems remain so stark is because it can appear difficult for women to raise their concerns at work or assert their legal rights. There can be a fear that doing so could be career-limiting.
In addition, when grievances are raised, the employer can have an instinctive tendency to close ranks and a reluctance to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Going through that process often leaves the employee feeling even more disillusioned. If the employee seeks to assert their legal rights further, employers have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to sap a claimant’s resolve and exhaust their budget – it is usually the employee’s first and only legal dispute in their career, but not the employer’s.
As well as this, employers often try to settle disputes on confidential terms and with the condition that the allegations are withdrawn and not re-stated.
Many women understandably conclude that life is too short, so they accept the deal and discontinue their claims.
In this way, companies avoid significant pressure to change.
What to do?
Against that backdrop, many will conclude that raising a complaint is simply not worth it. However, employees are in a much stronger position than they may appear.
Firstly, they have legal protection. Not only are women protected against discrimination at work under the Equality Act 2010, there is also protection against victimisation for doing a “protected act”. This means that if you raise a complaint or assist a colleague in doing so, you have protection from punishment.
Raising a concern does not usually commit you to fighting a claim all the way to the employment tribunal and beyond. It is often possible to resolve issues confidentially to everyone’s satisfaction.
It is also worth remembering that employers really do not want to be involved in discrimination disputes. They are time consuming, demoralising, expensive and put the employer at risk of adverse publicity.
Even so, the fact remains that the employer invariably has greater resources than the employee. Whilst it may seem that any dispute with an employer is David v Goliath, there are some ways to address the imbalance. They include:
- Begin with the end in mind – identify at the outset what you want to achieve. Do you want to stay at the employer or leave? If you do leave, what are your next career moves likely to be?
- Think about what the employer’s story will be – so often discrimination disputes are a tale of two narratives, the employee’s and the employer’s. It is useful to think about what the employer’s “official” narrative is, and how you might be able to dispel it.
- Evidence – these cases typically turn on evidence. Think about what exists (whether on email, instant message or in documents) that can support your complaint.
- Use your resources wisely – because employers invariably have greater resources than a single employee, they may try to play “a long game” until you run out of resolve or budget. It is helpful to be prepared for this, and to remain focussed on the central issues in your complaint.
- Think about your allies – more often than not, it is one employee vs a larger organisation. However, your colleagues may have experienced similar issues. This can be especially true in relation to unequal pay and inappropriate conduct by male colleagues – if one employee is experiencing this, chances are someone else is too. There is strength in numbers – if there can be multiple complainants, then not only can it strengthen a case, it can also make an adversarial process easier to endure and pooling resources can make legal budgets go further.
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