Thirty years after equal pay legislation was introduced in the UK, the gender pay gap is as wide as ever. Lindsey McDonald tackles discrimination in the workplace

While it might be only six-figure payouts from big name companies that are making the headlines in national newspapers these days, make no mistake, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment cases are on the increase. The insurance industry had a taste when the former chief executive of the Institute of Risk Management, Maureen Gibbins, took the institute to tribunal for contuctive dismissal and sexual discrimination.

Payouts for sexual discrimination cost UK businesses £1.77m in 2000, up 38% on 1999. And with high profile awards such as those awarded to Julie Bower and Kay Swinburne (pictured above), the full-year figures for 2001 to 2002 are likely to be significantly higher. A clear message is now emerging for employers - sexual discrimination is no longer just about negative publicity; it can seriously affect a company's bottom line.

All five headline-grabbing cases in 2001 were against financial service groups - as yet there has been no six-figure payout against an insurance company or broker firm. However, with 40,000 cases lodged last year against employers for sexual discrimination, no employer in the insurance industry can afford to be complacent.

According to the latest Association of British Insurers (ABI) figures 340,000 people are involved in the insurance industry in the UK, about a third of all those employed in financial services in the UK. The ABI estimates 55% are female.

It should also be remembered that the £1.77m figure represents only the 191 cases that made it to tribunal and does not include those that are settled beforehand, or those settlements negotiated by the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Between April 2000 and March 2001 ACAS negotiated settlements in 3,221 sexual discrimination disputes.

Grievances
Maureen Gibbins claims she suffered sexual discrimination by the Institute of Risk Management when she had a baby earlier this year.

Gibbins says she left IRM for a period of maternity leave in February 2001 and while she was off, a list of grievances was drawn up by staff against her and her position was threatened. Gibbins claims that had she not gone on maternity leave the situation would not have happened.

The IRM defended its position and under the terms of the settlement Gibbins received a cheque for an undisclosed amount but no apology. Gibbins says that she is not alone in suffering sexual discrimination.

"It is not as bad as it was but, there's still lots of men around from the old school," she says.

"One of my old bosses used to think that female chief executives are just glorified secretaries," she adds.

It is 30 years since equal pay legislation was first passed in the UK, but we still have the third largest gender pay gap in Europe. Research by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) shows women can still expect to earn £240,000 less than a man doing the exact same job over the course of a working lifetime - and that is when she doesn't take time out to have children. What's more, the Kingsmill Report published at the end of last year found the gender pay gap was actually widening, up from 18% to 19% in 2000.

However, the newly-created AMICUS MSF union, the UK's second largest, contends that ultimately mandatory pay audits may be the only way to stamp out disparities in the male/female wage packets. The union is the largest insurance trade union in the UK and about 25% of its members work within the industry.

Following its findings last year that "finance sector pay systems are not open and transparent - particularly an issue for women", 2002 sees the union step up its campaign for equal pay with the high profile launch of its pay audit questionnaires.

It has sent out questionnaires to 10,000 employers in December 2001, of this number about 600 are insurance companies. It has promised to name and shame those who do not respond by the mid-February 2002 deadline and to publish a list of those employers who do not return the questionnaires.

One employer which will not be appearing on the list of shame is Legal & General. Last year, the insurer worked closely with the union when it reviewed the salaries of all its 6000 UK operations staff, half of whom are female.

The insurer, which has a policy of paying market related salaries, found only slight disparities between male and female wages, which averaged out over the range of jobs, when it conducted the review.

"We believe in treating people fairly," explains Geoff Tucker, head of remuneration at Legal & General.

Legal & General is currently reviewing its promotion and interviewing processes to ensure they are fully "gender blind".

Government action
Based on the response to its questionnaire so far the union expects only a tiny proportion of them to be returned. But employers who consider their internal practices to be nothing to do with AMICUS MSF, would do well to remember that MSF national secretary Margaret Wall is also the government's equal pay tsar.

The government has promised to look again at the question of pay equality in 2003 and AMICUS MSF's equality officer, Gail Cartmail says pay audits are a vital first step in addressing wage disparity in the UK, which must be carried out before any consideration can be given to whether there is a need for a change in the law with regard to quotas and positive discrimination.

It is not just unions who are advocating increased transparency in salaries.

A recent survey from the Institute of Management among senior female management and directors found that while the number of women in their ranks had increased many women still perceive unacceptable levels of discrimination in pay and promotion.

The key findings of the survey include:

  • 33% still believe that women are discriminated against in terms of pay policy

  • 47% perceive that gender discrimination occurs in promotion decisions

  • 29% believe there will never be parity in number and status of female and male managers in their own organisation.

    Institute of Management director general Mary Chapman says: "Organisations need to tackle these issues head on with transparent reward and promotion procedures, based on ability and achievement."

    Women who have broken through the glass ceiling

  • Mary Francis, ABI director general
  • Marie-Louise Rossi, IUA head
  • Val Gooding, BUPA CEO
  • Annette Court, Direct Line CEO
  • Bridget McKintyre, Norwich Union underwriting and marketing director

    Are you being discriminated against or sexually harassed?

  • If you feel uncomfortable with comments or material of a sexual nature (such as pornography) directed at you in the office, write a note to the person who has made the comments. Keep copies of any correspondence.

  • Raise the matter with personnel or a sympathetic co-worker. If your employer has a code of conduct, you have a right to expect them to follow it, and to keep you informed of its progress.

  • If you are suffering from stress or depression as a result of harassment/discrimination visit your doctor to get it documented.

  • Remember you only have three months, less a day, to lodge your complaint under sexual harassment legislation.

  • If you are a member of a union seek advice from it. Most unions will have experience of fighting discrimination and harassment cases. They can also offer invaluable emotional and legal support.

  • The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) offers a wealth of information on employment tribunals. It has regional offices throughout the UK, a list of which can be found at www.eoc.ac.psiweb.com

  • Citizens' Advice Bureaus have staff experienced in dealing with employment disputes - visit www.nacab.org.uk

    Sexual harassment
    While the MSF and others tackle sexual discrimination, it should not be forgotten that sexual harassment cases are also on the increase in the UK. Last year a survey for the EOC found a staggering 50% of working women will suffer some form of sexual harassment during their working lifetime.

    Thankfully sexual assault in the workplace is extremely rare and is clearly a matter for the criminal courts.

    However, many people are simply not aware that commenting on someone of the opposite sex's appearance could be construed, under the law, as sexual harassment. A case last year found against an employer who repeatedly told his personnel manager to wear more lipstick and not to wear trousers to the office.

    Comments made via email are not exempt from the remit of sexual harassment legislation.

    Just last week a City-law firm settled a claim by a former secretary over an email suggesting her replacement should be a "fit busty blonde".

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