Back to the future

Caroline Williams, Chief Executive, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce

Four years ago the Equality Act brought together various pieces of legislation, and provided for nine ‘protected characteristics’, namely pregnancy and maternity; marriage and civil partnership; sexual orientation; sex; religion or belief; race; gender reassignment; disability; and age.

It would be nice to think that legislation was, and is, unnecessary to tell us that everybody should be treated the same. But, although we’ve embraced ‘diversity’, there are still issues that have to be addressed.

When the Equality Act 2010 was in its infancy there was much advice dished out to employers. It was often defensive. Would newly empowered staff be instigating countless tribunals? ‘Claims may now be successful even when there is insufficient evidence to prove discrimination based on just one of the characteristics’ was a warning. ‘Pay secrecy’ was to be illegal; the staff could compare their salaries! Was this too much ‘power to the people’?

It all rather detracted from the aims of the Act which were to ensure that everybody was given an equal chance and not suffer discrimination.   

Four years on we’re more positive and see the benefits of equality and diversity. Employers with a diverse workforce have a wider talent pool to draw on. A mix of ages creates a team that blends youthful thinking with seasoned experience. A balance of genders creates a more informed workforce with male and female opinions represented. A diverse corporate culture has a positive effect on morale; people like working for an aware company.

And yet, even allowing for these business benefits, some are still ‘more equal than others’. I’m not proposing more legislation. What I am suggesting is that there is still a need for cultural change. Take child care, and care for the elderly, as examples. The cost of looking after working parents’ children is much discussed. But the concept of greater flexibility in working hours is something that could help parent, child and employer in a ‘win win’ outcome. An experienced person is available for work, the employer benefits from that, and family life is easier arranged.

With increasing longevity many people now have the care of elderly parents to consider. Are there valuably experienced workers out there who are, probably unintentionally, discriminated against because they need a bit more flexibility in the times they could start and finish work?  

The benefits of a more diverse workforce are particularly attractive to smaller businesses. A range of experience, a flexible workforce, the stimulation of ideas from a mix of backgrounds all contribute to a vibrant working atmosphere. Is there though a problem in the small business sector in that they suffer from a lack of known role models? It’s not universally true of course but when the media want examples of glass ceilings and class divides it seems they look no further than our big and established institutions. Many of them talk the talk, but visibly fail to walk the walk.  I would like to see our smaller businesses’ good practice more visible as an example to others. 

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