Discrimination of women in the UK

These experiences indeed indicate that compulsory affirmative action does in fact reverse discriminatory practices and inequalities in labour market, this is backed up by Kivel who states, "Affirmative action works. There are thousands of examples of situations where people of colour, white women, and working class women and men of all races who were previously excluded from jobs opportunities, have gained access and status through affirmative action. "52 However, this is by no means to say that affirmative action is without problems and free from criticism, therefore these should be examined.

Clabaugh states " opportunities based on ascribed characteristics such as sex and race rather than achieved characteristics is unjust. "53 However, as the OFCCP point out affirmative action does not require an employer to hire an under-represented person who lacks qualifications to perform the job successfully, in preference to a more qualified person from a non-discriminated group. 54 Furthermore, in today's society there are no shortages of equally qualified women, whom may occupy senior professional positions in the UK.

Statistics from 1999 showed that an almost equal number of male and female graduates left university with a 2. 1 degree or above in disciplines such as economics, law and medicine. 55 It has been argued affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination, though in the US on average only 2% of discrimination cases each year allege reverse discrimination against white males and very few are upheld as meritorious. McElroy points out employers feel obliged to set quotas, as the cost of swimming against affirmative action can be very high.

Companies such as Sears who implemented affirmative action programmes but still had under-representation of women have been heavily sued. Thus, the market place in self-defence has often adopted a de facto quota system that protects it against charges of discrimination. 56 I feel that if goals or targets are to be met, there will be a degree of reverse discrimination especially if failure to meet these goals would result in serious penalties. However, writers such as Froomkin even defend this criticism by stating,

"Granting modest advantages to women and minorities is more than fair given hundreds of years of discrimination that benefited whites and men. "57 A major criticism on the part of employers is that affirmative action schemes are costly and bureaucratic to set up and monitor. Employers in Northern Ireland and the US echoed these concerns. However, in both counties employers agreed that most of these fears were unfounded and the gains out weighed the disadvantages. There is general support in the UK for an inclusive, pro-active and non-adversarial approach to achieve employment equity or fair participation.

Trade Unions, The Confederation of British Industry, organisations representing those adversely affected by discrimination and even employers themselves favour positive legal duties in the public and private sectors, in respect of sex and race. However, many organisations feel these duties should be in the form of prescribed legal guidelines as opposed to compulsory and monitored. As discussed only compulsory and monitored schemes have been successful. Therefore, it is only worthwhile introducing affirmative action in the UK if the is to be the case.

Additionally to avoid unnecessary bureaucratic requirements it has been suggested that compliance statistics could be reported in a company's annual report. As opposed to, annual returns to the EOC on a prescribed form. 58 Sanctions for failure to conduct a periodic review or to attain reasonable goals could include legal bars, fines, or a possible name and shame penalty as Australian legislation permits. 59 Legislation that came in over a quarter of a century ago has not helped attain sex equality in professional employment.

Gone are the days where a woman at the wheel of a bus would turn heads. However, equality for women in senior economic, legal and managerial positions has not occurred and social attitudes regarding women's capabilities of being in such positions are still highly negative. Thus, commentators such as McDowell, Singal and Zalik are correct in saying, "In the UK there is still the sexual division of labour with women in lower paid and lower status jobs. "60 Julie Mellor chair of the EOC adds,

"It is in incredible that after 25 years of sex discrimination legislation, so many peoples lives are still shaped by outdated assumptions about the roles they should play in society just because of their sex. "61 Therefore, it maybe concluded that if women are to be equally represented in professional employment and social attitudes are to be shifted regarding women's status in employment further action is needed. A realistic way to slowly start attaining this is via compulsory affirmative action in the form prescribed in the US and Northern Ireland. As the EOCNI states,

"Imposition of a statutory obligation on employers in the UK to take positive measures to address inequalities of opportunities is an essential ingredient in ensuring future equality between men and women". 62 As discussed, affirmative action does have problems and acceptance of such a scheme will inevitably prove difficult, as any attempt to alter the status in society is met with hostility. Especially where it is the status quo who, are the ones likely to loose out from such a scheme. Affirmative action is not a quick fix that will instantaneously redress the inequalities that women have faced in the labour markets for centuries.

Any scheme needs to be carefully planned and initiated with detailed and realistic goals, which over several years or even decades will slowly redress existing inequalities. As well as start to change social attitudes, so that future generations regard it a norm for women to be in high positions in the labour market and not unusual. It is true that any legislation can only go so far and parallel action will always be needed by industry and other concerned bodies, to counteract the prejudicial effects on women in employment which arises from social attitudes, behaviour and structure.

However, I feel that affirmative action is possibly the push that employers in the UK need to make them realise the time for genuine equality and change has come. However, affirmative action by no means is a mechanism that will eradicate discrimination against women from all areas of society. I would however conclude by saying that affirmative action can if properly initiated, be a very useful piece in the jigsaw against discrimination of women in the UK. As well as a useful means of changing social attitudes.