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Equality for women at work – or not?

Oh dear.  The Equality Bill is making it’s way through Parliament and will become law in the autumn next year.  I’ve been following its progress because it includes a controversial clause that makes positive discrimination lawful.  As I’ve said before positive discrimination does nothing to support women in the workplace.

The consultation for the bill commented that a similar system is in place in Norway.  Norway have made significant inroads in balancing the ratio of men to women in senior management, thanks to legislation that requires 40% of board members to be women.  However, last year Norway took a step backwards: gender parity used to be the responsibility of the Trade and Industry Ministry but now it comes under the Equality Ministry.  Apparently women at work is not a business problem but a women’s rights issue, something that Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, authors of Why Women Mean Business, disagree with.

The Kingsley Napley quarterly employment law bulletin for the network says:

Rather contentiously, the Bill will allow employers to use positive discrimination in their recruitment and promotion practices.  If there are two candidates for one role who are “as qualified” as each other, the employer may choose to recruit the candidate with a protected characteristic.  But the employer must have a reasonable belief the individual is from a protected group that is under-represented or disadvantaged.

Apparently changing the law isn’t enough in itself, at least for the public sector.  Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women and Equality (and the Minister who launched the consultation on positive discrimination last year), has kicked off a cross-party initiative to increase the number of women, black, Asian and minority ethnic people and disabled people on the boards of public bodies.  Why wait for the law to change when you can start a programme of mentoring, target setting and awareness raising now? In fact, why change the law at all if this initiative is going to work?

I would like to support initiatives that make workplaces more equal – and I do support the aims of the Diversity in Public Appointments programme – but I can’t help thinking that positive discrimination under the Equality Bill is still discrimination.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


  1. says

    Well Elizabeth we will simply have to agree to disagree. I believe that companies should choose the staff they feel best fit the role rather than being forced to have a more “balanced workplace”. After all most companies are there to make money, not to make society a better place. There may be those who would like to change that, but the reality is entrepreneurs are willing to risk their time and money in order to build a successful business which generates revenue as compensation for their risk taking.

    Further I never want to think I was hired based on my colour, gender or creed. I want to know I was hired purely because I was the best person for that role. I also know what my worth is. I don’t need a gender pay gap report to tell me what I should charge. I ask for what I want and invariably get it.

    So in my view everything Harriet Harman stands for is contrary to that. Women need to stand up for themselves in the workplace and stand their ground on pay, career etc. Now many women are already successfully doing that, and it is being demonstrated in careers such as the Law and Medicine where over 50% of the intake are now women.

    As such the need for legislation makes a mockery of all we are already achieving. It’s almost saying we cannot achieve success unless it’s legislated for. Therefore has Harriet Harman really helped women? I don’t think so and I know of many, many women who would agree with me (much as I hasten to add you probably know who would disagree with me).

    The reality is the days of the suffragetes are long gone. We have the vote, we make up a big percentage of the workplace, there are women CEO’s of FTSE 100 companies, women Chief Constables and women have the right to choose. Yes there is more to be done, but we’re smart enough, and capable enough to manage it without relying on legislation to force companies into seeing and utilising our talents.


    Susan de Sousa
    Site Editor

    • Elizabeth says

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Susan. We might not agree, but that is one of the good things about blogging – the chance to hear different sides of the story.

  2. Diwant Vaidya says

    Positive discrimination sounds similar to Equal Opportunity, which is what we have on this side of the pond. And I feel it is necessary.

    Consider that women are still underpaid for the same position by 15%. Consider that for a advertised job opening with 10 qualifications, men will apply if they HAVE just one qualification whereas women will NOT apply if they are MISSING just one qualification. Consider that with current ratios and social conditioning, a man and a woman both considered ‘as qualified’ as each other may not actually be equally qualified at all.

    Nobody likes a handicap but it may be necessary. For a while, anyway.

  3. says

    Anything Harriet Harperson touches is a disaster and in fact harms women. Luckily come the next election she and her comrades in Nu Liebour will be history and we can go back to a workplace where you are recruited and promoted on at least the mirage of merit alone. Not on the basis of gender, race or creed.

    I for one will welcome this. As an Interim Program / Senior Project Manager I’ve always had to stand on my own two feet and demonstrate my worth by the successful project management results I achieve. The last thing I want is positive discrimination to supposedly “help” me.


    Susan de Sousa
    Site Editor

    • Elizabeth says

      Susan, I think the positive discrimination element of the bill is aimed at helping companies achieve a more balanced workplace, not at helping individuals – although I suppose that is a side-effect. You’re entitled to your view, of course, but I don’t agree with you. Harriet Harman has done a lot of campaigning on women’s issues including the gender pay gap, and she spearheaded the national childcare strategy. In fact, I think it’s a pity that her idea about publishing pay gaps was blocked. When she was elected, 97% of MPs were male, so I’m glad someone was willing to tackle these issues.

  4. Josh Nankivel says

    “Positive discrimination” is still discrimination, and people should be hired because they are the best candidate, not in relation to any protected group they may or may not belong to.

    We don’t need anyone to have a reason to doubt the suitability of a hire. Positive discrimination gives non-protected groups a crutch to say “Well, I would have had that job if not for positive discrimination.” -whether it is true or not. Who does that serve?

    Josh Nankivel


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