Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Age discrimination

You may be forgiven for not realising that "age" is also one of the protected characterisics in the equality act.  What this means is that it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their age or because they fall within a group of ages.

Age based discrimination is a little different in that it can be justified, but only in certain circumstances.  

This article examines three examples of potential age discrimination and asks you to consider whether or not there is a potential for discrimination, and if so, can the discrimination be justified.

In reading through the examples below, please keep an open mind.  Also, please bear in mind that there is a distinction between direct discrimination (overt) and indirect discrimination (where a policy, criteria or practice applies equally to everyone, but may have a disproportionate effect on some more than others).

1.  The Bank

TSB, LLOYDS and the Bank of Scotland all advertise "youth accounts".  There is nothing new about this, it has been industry practice to create specific products targeted at young people to encourage them into the financial services world.  

However, under the same heading, one of the accounts is marked up as a "student account".  Again, it is industry practice to market specific products to the students of higher and further education.  If you check the eligibility for a student account, you will find a requirement for a UCAS letter, proof of SAAS / LEA funding and so on.  Also, a requirement to be studying for at least two years full time.  

Here are the questions which arise in this example:

Is it acceptable to market a student account as one of the range of services under the heading "youth accounts"?

Are there any issues with the eligibility criteria set for the student account?

2.  University Tutition Fee Discount Schemes

Edinburgh Napier University, the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow all offer 10% discount on postgraduate tuition fees provided the student is a graduate of that institution.  Some Universities also attach additional conditions, for example, requiring the student to have achived a certain grade at undergraduate level, to only study full time or not to be embarking on a "professional course of study". 

Are there any issues with the operation of such a "loyalty" scheme?

3.  Freshers' Week

In the first week of a University or College semester, the institution or the local student body, organises a series of events for new students.  In many cases, the events will be open to every new student.  There will also be social events organised, these may include famous pub crawls, nights out and cultural excursions.  Parallel to these events, the Institution will also organise a in induction programme designed to introduce new students to the more functional side of academic life.  

What issues, if any, arise from the operation of freshers weeks or induction events?

Please leave your comments in the box below.

I have designed this exercise to get my readers engaged.  

I will post my responses, in answer to the comments given.  

Sunday, 10 November 2013

More Women Please in the Boardroom and in Politics

In our society, women constitute just over 50% of the population.  Taking this figure into account, why are there not more women seen in politics?  Perhaps, this is the wrong question to ask - there are lots of women active in politics - just not represented in our Parliaments or in our Local Government. This then changes the question, why are there not more women in Parliament or Local Government?


Many readers will be familiar with the sociological concept of patriarchy.  This is where society, in almost all aspects, is dominated or controlled by men.  This can been seen at a number of levels; men still dominate the Board Rooms of large corporations, men are heavily featured in Parliament, the Judiciary, Senior Government Roles and so on.  Women still earn on average less than men in terms of their take home pay and certain Professions, at a senior level, remain dominated by men.

Against this background, we contrast the following:

Women, on average, are performing better in education than men.  Similarly, the majority of entrants to the legal profession, at the junior level, are also women.  Women are also more likely than men to take part in, or organise campaigns at a local level for example, to stop the closure of a local school or hospital.  Women are less likely than men to take risks, for example by driving dangerously, or in making risky financial decisions.  Women also live longer than men and are generally better at taking care of their own health and wellbeing than men.

If women are more responsible, are better educated, are more than able to take part in politics, then why are there not more women in Parliament or in Local Government?

No Easy Answer

Of course, it it easy to answer this question from the point of view of discrimination, or blocking from the boardroom, perhaps even societal expectations and expected gendered roles.  However, it is actually more complex than that.

Access to Power

If we first turn to the boardroom.  This example also translates into politics.  In order to get there, you need access.  Unfortunately, it is not as simple as simply walking through the door and taking your seat at the table.  If women are not given the same access to the opportunities that men have, certainly at senior level, then women will always hit the "glass ceiling".  This is an analogy which continues to be relevant.  Women are granted access to a certain level and thereafter, have to stare through at the men sitting above them.

If the boardroom remains controlled by men, then why would men want to change that?  If the current model of working suits, why change it.

Men are not all the same

First of all, it is important to note that not all men subscribe to the concept of control or exclusion.  However, it takes a brave soul to instigate change.  Usually, a carrot and stick approach is necessary here.  For example, a change in the law.  This in itself, is not enough.  The equal pay act and the sex discrimination act all failed to achieved either board room parity or parity in pay with men.  Even to this day, women are fighting it out in employment tribunals across the UK to achieve the same rights as their male counterparts.

The powers that be, whether in the board room or in politics, inevitably still favour men.  This may not be direct discrimination against women, but usually indirect, where a policy, criteria or practice, applying both to men and women has a disproportionate effect on women.

We know that a majority of women remain the primary carers for children, for older relatives and also  work as a majority in certain work roles e.g., cleaning staff, catering, social work and teaching.  These responsibilities do not lend well to taking part in the boardroom, or seeking selection as a candidate for a political party (the precursor to seeking election as a candidate).

Indirect Discrimination in the Boardroom

If you are the primary carer for your disabled son, would you be able to drop those responsibilities at a moments notice, to enter into an extended board meeting?  The answer, in the majority of cases, is likely to be no.

In order to do that, you would need help and support.  First of all, you would need someone to share your caregiving responsibilities, board meeting would have to be arranged at family friendly times, you would need the support of your colleagues to take time off for inevitable appointments with the doctor and so on.  If you are an executive, sitting on a governing board, how likely are your colleagues to be that supportive - particularly if they are all, or by majority, men?

Indirect Discrimination in Politics

In order to get selected by a political party, you have to be seen to be active in that political party.  This means giving up personal time to go out and campaign, to deliver leaflets, attend conferences and events, meetings and so on.  If you are looking after your children, whilst your partner is at work, how easy is that going to be?

Similarly, if you are motivated enough and can find that spare time to actually get selected, what happens when you notice that Parliament sits late into the night, that there are no creche facilities, no extra allowances are provided for you and your family to employ a nanny or to permit your partner and children to re-locate to your new Parliamentary office?

The next obstacle involves persuading your colleagues that the rules should be changed.  However, bear in mind that the expenses scandal put any challenge to the current rules - to make them more family friendly - unlikely.

Solutions to this problem

1.  Identifying the institutional barriers

This seems easy to achieve.  However, as mentioned elsewhere, it is not as simple as that.  First of all, it is important to consult with women who have ambitions to join the board or enter politics.  We need to know what their experiences are, where their ambitions lay and what steps could be taken in order to help them achive their full potential.  

It is also important not just to look at women, but also look at men's experiences too.  Although, we have identified that a majority of women retain priminary responsibility as a care giver, a growing number of men, as well as women, now also perform this role.  In some cases, the responsibilities are shared between both partners in a family.  

It is also important to identify what systems currently operate in terms of recruitment - whether to elected office or the boardroom - and to perform an equality impact assesment.  This will help identify problems, for example with child care.  It will not identify all of the problems, but it will identify some.  

When you are aware of what the issues are or where the inequality in policies, practices or criteria lay, you can begine to apply some fixes.  If a particular policy sets board meetings at any time, then change it to accomodate family needs.  If you cannot take part in a selection meeting because you are looking after the children, ask for additional support from the political party to enable your participation.

2.  Take action

It is not enough to just look at the problems and say that there is an issue.  Talk is cheap.  What is important is that there is a measure of follow through.  It is not enough to say we have changed out recrutiment policy, or we now hold our meetings during the day, you have to stick with it and continue to improve and learn from the experiences generated along the way.  

There is no point encouraging women to come forward if you are not going to committ to providing the necessary support, education, training and rule changes that are necessary to facilitiate any change.  There has to be a full blown cultural change which tackles the institutionalism preventing many women coming forward.  

3.  All Women Shortlists

This is a form of direct affirmative action.  It is not without its merits and was sucessful in increasing the representation of women in both the Scottish Parliament and Westminster under the then Labour Governments.  

However, this is an extreme step.  It is a matter of debate whether in the long term a policy of all women shortlists will solve the problem.  

In the Labour Party, the decision was taken to use only all women shortlists.  However, following a decade of improved representation of women in both Parliaments, the numbers began to return to earlier levels.  Additionally, the Westminster Parliament took the retrograde step of reverting back to late night sittings of Parliament and the right to pay for your spouse to come to Parliament with you was withdrawn.  In essence, Parliament became the dominion of men once again.  Additionally, for the few women who did remain, they often had gorwn up families or came from families without children.  

If you are woman, or a man for that matter, with a family, how likely are you going to want to seek selection as a candidate if you know the working environment will not be family friendly?  This appears to the crux of the matter.  If the institution you are seeking election to is not family friendly, then what is the point of an all womens shortlist?  

Additionally, if the very party you are seeking to represent, is unwilling to move to change the rules that govern the system, or support you and your family inside the system, will you come forward to seek election?

An all womens shortlist will only work sucessfully if it allows all women - those with caring responsibilities and those without - to come forward as equals.  It will also only work where the institutional barriers have been broken to facilitiate full participation and are not tokenistic.  

At the moment, the reintroduction of an all womens shortlist system into politics or the board room would only act in the short term.  In the long term, like its precursor, it will fail.  

Moving Forward

The arguments reheresed in this article are not new and some may question the wisdom of writing about this issue.  However, it is important to remember that our democracy, whether local or national is meant to be representative.  Women constitute over 50% of the population, yet are routinely excluded from our political system.

Whether you believe in all women shortlists or not, society has to move out of an institutional mould and allow more women that coveted place at the top table.