Alison Marshall: Equity in the women’s world

Alison Marshall: Equity in the women’s world

Alison Marshall

Alison Marshall discusses women’s rights and discrimination, problems with the gender pay gap and parental leave, changes in legislation and the road to gender equality.

Recent years have seen us celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK. It’s now 50 years since the passage of the Equal Pay Act and 45 since the Sex Discrimination Act. Most of the current workforce will never have worked while such discrimination was legal. 

If you grow up in a society that’s debating gender fluidity and non-binary identities, it might seem like the dark ages to refer to times when a woman required a male guarantor to take out a mortgage, but it was only the 70s.

We still live with the gender pay gap. Everyday inequalities and movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up point towards ongoing battles still to be won. Women are still not as well represented at senior level roles as men and this is generally put down to childcare responsibilities.

However, the fact that there is still a lot to be achieved should not be taken to mean that nothing is being done.

It is difficult to achieve wholesale changes in the way society thinks about and treats women, even in the UK where women have had anti-discrimination laws for 50 years. However, one tool those in power can wield is legislation, and that can instigate debate, which can in turn create gradual shifts in the paradigm. No one completely understands the perspective of someone who is different to them, but public discussion can lead to enlightenment and understanding.

An obvious area to look at is maternity leave. This has been steadily developed over several decades to its current place. The UK’s provision is seen as generous in comparison to the USA, while stingy in comparison to many European countries. But how is the legislation helping to further the cause of equality for women?

There is no perfect solution to the imbalance resulting from becoming parents. Women bear and give birth to children. Women often breastfeed their children. These are differences that cannot be changed or denied. However, there are steps that can be taken to help equalise the potential impact on parents’ careers. Gender equality has for so long been about bringing women into what was once perceived as a ‘men’s world’, but it also has to be about bringing men into the so-called ‘women’s world’ too.

An example is shared parental leave which came into force in 2015. Put simply, this means that the mother’s partner can share the leave available. If each parent takes an equal amount of leave, their absence from the workplace is equalised. If the spouse is the lower earner, their personal finances can potentially be impacted less. A wonderful solution, right?

Yet only seven per cent of parents have taken up this entitlement since the legislation was introduced, so critics might suggest it’s a failure. However, there is now a discussion taking place between parents and a slow shift in culture around parental leave.

People currently having children grew up in a world where maternity leave was only for women. For them - both men and women - it is a big change to their mindset to share this leave. In places like Sweden it took some time before the social norms caught up when shared parental leave was introduced more than 40 years ago.

The law in this area is clearly at an early stage in the UK and has a way to go to ensure obstacles to utilising this right are removed. More than just social obstacles, there are still legal barriers too. Mothers have effectively to consent to allowing fathers to share ‘their’ leave. A recent court ruling legitimised the ability of employers to offer enhanced pay for maternity leave, while at the same time offering no enhancement for spouses taking shared parental leave. This practice is currently commonplace. If we are to be serious about making this work, it has to be done on a more equitable basis.

Studies show that fathers taking a greater role in children’s lives through parental leave are more likely to share a greater portion of childcare in the future. This gets right to the core of one of the main reasons for gender imbalance in the workplace. There are now calls to enhance these rights and provide fathers with standalone rights - and possibly obligations - to take leave.

So while we might celebrate anniversaries of landmark legislation for women’s rights and lament that sometimes it feels like not much progress has been made. We should find hope in the fact that there are still legislative changes working to improve the situation happening all the time. They don’t change cultures instantly, but have a gradual, cumulative effect that will hopefully lead to a more equal and balanced society for all.

Alison Marshall: Equity in the women’s world

Alison Marshall is a partner at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP

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