It was unspeakably unfair – and a shameful waste of human resources. Until the mid-Seventies or thereabouts, it was embedded in every aspect of our culture. But in less than a generation, we've been able to put most of those wrongs to right. There might still be a bit of tidying up to do but, by and large, our house is in order. So please, can you stop whingeing and let us get back to the serious business of running a country? That's the standard New Labour line on sexual discrimination. At least it is at the very top.
If you're a New Labour Woman and you want to get ahead, you're best advised to leave the word "sexist" at home. If you secretly believe that there is still work to be done, you must cushion your demands in language that won't offend. If you do not wish to be seen to be playing favourites, you do not use the word "women" without tacking on "and men". And it's political suicide to express concern about girls without alluding to the boy crisis. But there can't be many people out there who really believe that boys, girls, men and women of all races, religions and classes have the use of the same level playing field.
The game is still rigged. Although some women are doing well in some areas of work, most are still working in dead-end jobs at the low end of the pay scale. The gap between average male and female earnings has halved since the mid-Seventies, but at 18 per cent it is still too high. Women still face more obstacles in the workplace than men, which is why we still need the Sexual Discrimination Act and agencies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to back us up. But for how much longer?
At its 25th anniversary celebrations yesterday, the EOC announced a radical change of direction. It wants to extend its remit so that it can fight for men's rights as well as women's rights, and for boys as well as girls. It wants to give as much importance to men's and women's domestic rights as it does to their workplace rights. For many women's rights activists, this is the ultimate cop-out, and the ultimate betrayal of all the EOC was set up to do. They're sure it's just another watering down exercise. And they could be right.
Without support, an expanded equality agenda will achieve less than the old one did. But I still think it's a risk worth taking, and the only way to end the current deadlock. When the EOC came into being, its primary aim was to help women entering the male-dominated workplace. The emphasis was on parity – making sure that once they gained entry, they got the same treatment and the same chances as men. Twenty-five years on, the limitations of that strategy are evident. It can help women into work and offer them some protection.
But it cannot challenge the central organising principle of the workplace: that the adult world divides itself neatly into two parallel armies, one that's free to go out to work, and the other that stays at home to do the laundry. There is no longer a neat division between those who work outside the home for pay, and those who work inside it for nothing, but the myth is still enshrined in 99 per cent of all our work structures. It determines the length of the working day and the shape of every career. It assumes that there is no need for any employer to make time for domestic life.
Men and women must "act like men" if they want to get ahead, and can expect to be penalised if they "act like women". This imperative puts different pressures on men than it does on women, and it pushes them into making different choices, but it makes them all suffer. Anyone whose domestic ties are visible can expect a rough ride. Which is why the rule in so many families is for one parent to guarantee a steady income by working long hours, while the other does most of the caring, plus a little part-time work on the side to pay for Christmas presents and holidays.
That their separate fates are linked may be a radical new insight in the policy world, but it is only too evident at the household level. Mothers of young children are not free to work unless someone can fill in for them at home. This someone cannot be the father if he is the one who makes the larger salary, and must put in long hours to hold his own in the workplace. Even if they want a more balanced and equitable arrangement – and the evidence is that more and more families would – there is not much they can do. They cannot change the rules of the workplace single-handed.
And that's why the EOC has decided to take on this fight. In the EOC's new "vision for equality in the 21st century", women and men can be good parents and have successful careers. Gender no longer influences earnings, organisations take equality as seriously as any other business standard, and all employers see the point of accepting and accommodating the needs of a diverse workforce. There is quick, effective redress when things go wrong, and there are equal numbers of men and women in decision-making, not just in Parliament but in all public bodies.
Children are able to follow their talents, instead of having to follow the usual gender stereotypes. Public bodies take the lead in showing how workplace equality can work, and how it can help everyone to profit. And there is one law that protects everyone from discrimination: "Equality laws should be made consistent, clear and workable, providing effective protection to women and men, girls and boys, of all races and creeds, at home, at school and in the workplace. "
To push this agenda forward, the EOC wants the election manifesto to include commitments to: (1) extend the period of maternity leave, paid paternity leave, and paid and flexible parental leave; (2) require all employers to conduct pay audits; (3) award contracts only to companies that "practice equality in their business"; (4) implement the European directive to outlaw discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation; (5) increase the power of tribunals so that they can make general recommendations that clarify good practice; (6) allow the EOC to bring proceedings in its own name; (7) amend the law to allow special measures in the selection of parliamentary candidates, so that more women are selected; (8) advertise all public appointments openly, so that under-represented groups are better able to apply; (9) mainstream equality into all its policies, and put pressure on all public bodies to "lead the way'" by doing the same; and (10) modernise equality legislation.
It wants the Government to put equality at the top of its agenda, as this is the only way of forcing the workplace to change. Will it get what it wants? My guess is that it could get more lip-service than ever, if Mr Blair and friends see broad support for the proposals. But when it comes down to it, will they find it in them to tell their friends in the free market that the time has come to change their ways? I'm not sure. If they end up letting the side down, it will not be because they don't care about equality, but because they care much more about the CBI. In the 21st century, the struggle for equality is no longer a battle of the sexes. It's the little people vs the big guys. That's why the EOC needs all the support it can get, and from men as well as women.