Gender discrimination is back in the headlines with the Equality Act (Gender Pay Gap) Regulations 2017 coming into force this month. Of course this legislation is welcome since it focuses employers' minds on looking at what their pay gap is and addressing it. Do I think it will eliminate the gender pay gap? No, no more than the 47 years of the Equal Pay Act we have already had. Without being overly cynical, and despite being a discrimination lawyer, my view that this law will not eliminate the problem is founded on a career-long experience of gender discrimination in the workplace and the knowledge, sadly, as a working woman, that we have a long way to go on unconscious bias, attitudinal barriers and sexual harassment.
I started full-time work in the eighties. Ouch. So I really am older than I feel. That gives me almost 30 years of personal experience of barriers at work for women and gender discrimination. I think I am entitled to feel we have a lot of progress still to make.
At University I realised that gender discrimination was going to feature large in my life. One of my fellow female students told classmates that she thought I was a bimbo. Perhaps then I looked like one: white blonde hair, tall and skinny. I loved meeting her at the notice board on the day I went to get my finals results. There was my name, top of the board, First Class Honours. So, it's not just men that discriminate and harass, let's be clear on that. In my world of work however it has been.
As a trainee lawyer, I had to contend with a senior barrister tapping me on my bum and telling me to "run along now, there's a good girl" as we headed to court. I had the presence of mind to turn round and tell him that if he laid another finger on me I would report him. He didn't do it again although we continued to work together but I was branded as "no fun at all". I guess for some men being fun means being up for it, open target, fair play. I did not elicit his attention, I did not encourage it. But he felt it was his right. And I am sure in certain circles this is still acceptable otherwise why would it go on.
Do I think things have improved as time has gone on? Probably. But the problem has not been eliminated.
Working as a lawyer I have had situations where my professional competence has been called into question because of my sex. I don't think about my sex, I am a lawyer first and unless someone is categorising me as a woman I don't think about it. However when a senior Board member tells you to "stop being a hysterical woman" because you are advising on risk how can this possibly be justified? He simply would not have said that to a man. He disagreed with me, fair enough, but why attack my gender?
On a more recent occasion I had a run in on email with an opponent who emailed me: "Your email is overly emotional and does you little credit". I was expressing anger and frustration in my email. I was not emotional. Why did a male partner feel he could talk to me like I was a naughty little girl? Needless to say, that pressed my buttons. I reported him to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
The profession is built on a number of key mandatory principles one of which is not to discriminate. I also reported him to his firm's managing partner, a male, who could see nothing wrong with the email whatsoever. Until these dinosaurs either die out or have diversity training I fear the legal and other professions still have a long way to go on gender. The gender pay gap is not the reason women are under-represented at senior levels. The real reason? Discrimination and sexism.