No 34: Shining a light: reporting on equalities and protected characteristics

by Sarah Vickerstaff

As the first round of gender pay gap reporting hits the news, it is worth reflecting on the wider issues around equality duties and reporting on ‘protected characteristics’ as currently defined by the Equality Act 2010. Whilst the gender pay gap reporting can be criticised for its relatively crude analysis of the problem, it does have the merit of shining a light on an important topic and creating a space for talking about the kinds of structural and cultural inequalities which persist and manifest themselves in pay (and pension) disparities. As social policy academics, we should welcome the spotlight that has been put on pay disparities. Further, as a researcher into the impacts of age on employment opportunities and experiences, I wonder, is it worth considering whether there is any merit in extending duties to report on age issues?

Why report on age?

With ageing populations, governments everywhere want to encourage people to keep working for longer and delay retiring, so that more money is saved for retirement and there is less pressure on public resources to support them through retirement. Yet, we know that older unemployed people find it more difficult to get back into work and there is also plenty of evidence of discrimination against older workers in work, in terms of access to training and promotion, for example. It is not only pay but other aspects of employment that potentially merit a duty to report. There is a little remarked upon duty on Northern Ireland employers (with 250+ employees) to monitor and report on the breakdown of staff by religion.

The Business in the Community Age at Work team, in the interest of increasing the presence of the 50+ age group in employment, have called upon employers to “publish the number and percentage of older workers in their workforce in order to create transparency”. So far, only nine businesses have taken this step.

The value of organisations knowing their age profiles (and revealing them) shines a light on potential areas of discrimination, but importantly, also lays a basis for not only identifying but more importantly, designing responses to inequalities. This is no less true for other areas of potential inequality or perhaps all protected characteristics. Equality, diversity and inclusivity managers across the private and public sectors know that ‘equality monitoring’ is the bedrock of strategies for improvement. Understanding your current workforce makeup and modelling the promotion and career pathways of different groups is the first step to policy development or change.

An example: equality monitoring in Higher Education

To take one example, many universities have signed up to the Advance HE Athena SWAN charter which focuses on the advancement of gender equality (formerly the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU)). Individual university departments and the whole institution can apply for accreditation at bronze, silver and gold levels — a kind of equality kite mark achieved by rigorous analysis of current workforce data and the framing of action plans to respond to identified problem areas. More recently, ECU has developed a Race Equality Charter along similar lines which seeks to promote “the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education”. There is also the Disability Confident Scheme, in which employers can commit to at least one action that will make a difference for disabled people. Universities may also seek to demonstrate their commitment to all LGBT+ staff being “accepted without exception” in the workplace by joining the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. This suggests that a lot of effort is going into understanding and improving the barriers that many different groups within the workforce may face, which is commendable. The question, now, is whether this level of effort should be extended to all organisations and all protected characteristics.

Who should report and on what?

There seem to be two problems with the way that things are going: the time it takes to report on all the different protected characteristics (and therefore, the problem of persuading private sector employers to do it) and the tendency to replicate activities for gender, race, sexuality, and age, etc., as separate and distinct entities when, in fact, the best theorising about the impact of structural inequalities concludes that they are intersecting and simultaneous in their occurrence. Understanding how gender intersects with age and disability, for example, is necessary to confront the realities of discrimination and disadvantage that someone may face.

Coming at this from a different direction, it is easy to argue that understanding the composition of an organisation’s workforce must be the benchmark for good practice across many areas of human resource policy: recruitment and selection, talent management, skills and career development, promotion and pay policies. A first step towards better equality, diversity and inclusion approaches might, therefore, be to expect all organisations that employ more than a threshold number of people (say, 250?) to routinely publish data on the composition of their workforces relevant to currently protected characteristics. This would give organisations (and the rest of us) a much more nuanced picture of workforces and provide a basis for developing policy to combat inequalities. It would also signal, as gender pay gap reporting does, that this is something important and that we as a society expect organisations to be accountable for their employment policies and their potentially discriminatory effects. This, of course, is merely shining a light on unfair treatment and is not ‘an answer’ to the deep-seated power relations that structure and reproduce inequalities. But, perhaps robust equality monitoring is a reasonable first step in expecting compliance with current equalities legislation.

Sarah Vickerstaff is Professor of Work and Employment in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent. She is a co-editor of the volume Gender, Ageing and Extended Working Life, published by Policy Press in 2017. She tweets @VickerstaffS.

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