Negative vibes from positive action

May 15, 1998

Women are likely to take up 80 per cent of the 1.6 million new jobs projected by the year 2006 in the United Kingdom. At present, women form almost half of the workforce although on average they are paid 72 per cent of men's weekly earnings.

It is more than 20 years since the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act were passed, and a fundamental review of equal opportunities legislation is now taking place. There is a crying need to replace the two acts with a single comprehensive piece of legislation that also embraces the European Equal Treatment Directive.

Employers should have a statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. Equality of opportunity is about taking steps to eliminate barriers as opposed to positive discrimination, which, some have argued, sets up barriers and invites a backlash against equal rights.

Despite two decades of legislation, for instance, only 5 per cent of economics professors in the UK are women, according to Carol Propper's recent article (THES, April 17). At this rate it will take 200 years to reach the 50 per cent mark. Even in the surreal world of economics I would imagine there are few who would wish to wait that long. So stronger legislation is a must. So, too, is a family-friendly workplace with decent maternity rights, recognition for part-time work including pension rights, parental leave, career breaks and procedures to protect against bullying and harassment.

The new equality legislation is expected to prohibit sexual harassment and improve statutory maternity rights for those without a decent occupational agreement. Hopefully, too, there will be a new right to take "collective" cases so that employment tribunals can make general findings as well as granting individual remedies.

Women can feel very isolated when making a complaint, even when they are represented by a trade union, because the proceedings are so complicated and lengthy.

If some men are feeling threatened by all this - they should not. Many men will welcome family-friendly policies and will benefit from legal protection in the workplace.

If self-interest is at the heart of it, pay and conditions will be further eroded in universities if the exploitation of women continues. Women tend to be more flexible and adaptable in their work and could therefore be used to bridge the financial gaps by taking non-tenured part-time jobs, which could well increase as the boundaries between higher and further education become blurred.

The lesson from the United States is clear. The number of women in non-tenured positions in colleges and universities in the US has risen by 142 per cent in 18 years (a bit faster than those economics professors). Women in non-tenured positions earn on average 20 per cent less than their male equivalents (who in turn earn less than their tenured counterparts), they are less academically qualified and are clustered in education and health sciences. Every non-tenured vacancy is swamped with applicants and new posts are being created in local communities to meet the growing demand from working students.

Does all this sound familiar?

The agenda of positive flexibility that aims to achieve equality of opportunity at work and the right to balance family life with career could so easily be turned into an agenda for deregulation.

Women could face further exploitation if cash-strapped universities drive down pay and job security under the guise of more flexible career structures. Stronger legislation on its own will not prevent this.

Equal opportunities should be a central part of policy development on campus. Universities have a clear choice - to promote equal rights in ways which are meaningful and effective or to "man" the barricades for the next 200 years.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, and a member of the national executive of Unison, the Trades Union Congress general council, and the European TUC executive.

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