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The future of workplace equality

At Conservative party conference, the TUC and Prospect asked: what next for equality in the workplace?

By Prospect Team  

This article was produced in association with TUC

After a year in which workplace harassment, the gender pay gap and women’s rights have been headline news, equal rights in the workplace was the perfect subject for a conference fringe. Hosted by Prospect and the Trade Unions Council, the event at Conservative party conference in Birmingham brought together TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and former Women and Equalities Minister Amber Rudd, MP.

For the latter, it has been a year of successes—although she acknowledged there is still a long way to go. Rudd shared the story of being a young woman in her first job with an investment banking firm. Feeling sure that she would not allow her gender to be an impediment, she began to notice that relatively few of the senior figures in the firm were women.

The panel observed that this is so often the case: women enter the workforce sure that they will be the generation to overcome gendered inequality, only to find that the same prejudices that affected their predecessors begin to bite as they get older.

Nevertheless, Rudd was keen to stress that she is optimistic. She explained how she had sometimes been the only woman in certain meetings and spaces, but chose to not be discouraged. Now, she explained, tools like the government’s gender pay gap reporting—which was introduced this year—are giving women the means to challenge discrimination in their workplaces.

O’Grady agrees. The pay gap reporting is, of course, a blunt tool—pay gap reports in companies are broken down by quartile, but do not reveal potential equal pay discrepencies—but sometimes blunt tools are needed. This year, O’Grady says, has been the year women have “blown the bloody doors off.”

But is there, chair Stephanie Boland asked, a need for more detailed reporting? What data exists on race and pay, for instance, shows that there is a substantial race pay gap. Similarly, disabled people, and individuals from other minority groups, can suffer pay inequality which is little reported.

While she was keen to stress equality of opportunity for all, Rudd was unsure about making reporting demands more complicated, noting that particularly smaller businesses would struggle to audit successfully. Instead, she advocated a holistic approach, including empowering workers to be bold in addressing inequality in their own workplaces.

O’Grady, too, said empowerment was important: but she also believes that research and policy change, including change led by the unions, are key. Although she said she was still getting to grips with “intersectionality” as a term, she emphasised that nobody’s identity is singular—“a woman”; “a black person”—but rather that everybody wears different identities in conjunction.

The most important thing, O’Grady said, is to be empathetic towards the different experiences people bring, and stay aware of the ways prejudice can be multi-faceted. Class inequality, for instance, is often overlooked when talking about equality in the workplace; yet for O’Grady, the power imbalances around economic and cultural capital are significant.

This theme came up time and time again during the audience Q&A—which was one of the most lively and interesting discussions at a Prospect party conference event this year. The panel heard from one man who was studying regional inequality in post-industrial Britain, and from another, based near Rochdale, who was involved in helping introduce young people to financial service careers. (O’Grady, in response, noted how often unfamiliarity with certain spaces, cultures and people underlines inequality.) One young woman stressed the necessity of an intersectional approach, particularly when it comes to devising policy.

Other audience members shared personal experiences. One young man was brave enough to share his story of inpatient mental health care, and stressed that empathy, and good mental health policy, are key to making workplaces accessible. Another man told the panel about his struggle to find work which could accommodate his learning disability—and see how much he had to offer.

Another young woman said that positive discrimination made her uncomfortable; she would, she said, be upset to learn she’d got a job because she was a woman, and wanted to stress equality of opportunity rather than pre-determined equality of outcome—something Rudd supported.

The strength of the discussion was such that it continued after the panel had broken up, with audience members sharing resources and stories with each other, and with the panellists. The young man who had shared his mental health story was keen to explain that the Tories could lead the way: “equality of opportunity?” He smiled. “We’ve always been for that.”

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