Equality in the workplace #SolicitorChat with The Law Society.

8 March is International Women’s Day, celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness against bias and striving for equality.

In 2021, equality in the workplace should be a given, but how can you be sure you’re being treated equally and what should you do if you believe you’re not?

Lucy Densham Brown provided answers to these and more live on Twitter this morning during #SolicitorChat.

Join The Law Society and other firms discussing on Thursday mornings 0900-1000.

 What is classed as gender discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination can be direct, such as only offering bonuses to men, or indirect, such as giving bonuses to employees who work late hours which may discriminate against working mothers. Indirect can be permitted if an employer can show there is a good reason for the policy.

Gender or sex discrimination law protects employees and job applicants from discrimination by less favourable treatment because of their sex, and from harassment or victimisation.

I think I am suffering sex discrimination at work. What can I do?

First you should try speaking to someone at your work; either your line manager, or your HR administrator. This can be difficult, especially if the discrimination is coming from someone senior in the company. Your company may have a helpline – some large businesses do.

If you are worried, a lawyer can give you advice on who best to speak to, and guide you through the process. There are also free helplines you can contact initially for advice, such as Citizen’s Advice.

Can my employer make me redundant whilst on maternity leave?

Yes, technically an employer can. However, this brings into play a rare example of positive discrimination in action. If you are made redundant whilst on maternity leave you are entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy (where one is available).

If more than one potentially redundant person could be offered that role, the employee on maternity leave is automatically entitled to it in preference to her colleagues. If you consider you may be being treated unfairly because of your maternity, you should seek legal advice.

Can my employer insist I return to the office if lockdown childcare commitments make this impossible?

The government has extended the furlough scheme to make it available for people who cannot work because of their childcare commitments. However this is at the employer’s discretion, although they are advised to consider genuine requests for furlough.

Employers are also encouraged to keep employees working from home wherever practicable. So if you can work from home, your employer should consider allowing this or allowing your or be furloughed full time or part time if necessary.

If though, an employer can show that they need you to physically be in the office for legitimate business reasons, then they may be able to require this of you as long as the requirement is not considered discriminatory.

As yet there is no case law on what might happen if an employer tries to force an employee to return to work whilst they have childcare responsibilities, despite the availability of the furlough scheme.

Ideally you should try to persuade your employer to consider all the options, rather than risk being a trial case. Your employer will be unlikely to want to be that trial case either.

How can employers ensure they are acting lawfully and avoiding gender discrimination?

Firstly, employers should give regular and substantial equality and diversity training to all employees. Employers should also seek to cultivate an open and welcoming environment that allows employees to feel safe, and able to speak to someone for help if they need it.

Employers should carefully consider the implications of any policies they propose in case they may indirectly discriminate against any protected category of staff, and seek legal advice on this if needed.

Finally, employers should ensure they have appropriate grievance procedures in place and protection for whistleblowers, but most import, genuinely listen to and investigate all complaints and concerns regarding discrimination in the workplace.

If you require any further information from any legal services, please contact any of our teams, whether individual services or business services.

The contents of this article are intended as guidance for readers. It can be no substitute for specific advice. Consequently we cannot accept responsibility for this information, errors or matters affected by subsequent changes in the law, or the content of any website referred to in this article. © Mundays LLP


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