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Fight for women's rights in the workplace goes on; Head of employment and HR at Cardiff law firm Darwin Gray, Fflur Jones, marks International Women's Day by exploring the development of women's rights over the last century... and the challenges still faced.

Byline: Darwin Gray

IT IS startling to think that 100 years have passed since the first women were granted the vote, and over 40 years since International Women's Day was instituted to campaign for the rights of women. And yet the campaign for equal treatment is not quite over - especially when it comes to the workplace.

This poignant anniversary comes at a time when sexual harassment complaints are rife, and the most recent gender pay gap statistics suggest that the average wages gap between the sexes is still at 18.4% in the UK.

Although we mark the centenary of some women's right to vote this year, the struggle for equality in the workplace extends back further than a century ago when women's activism gained pace.

Progress in the early 20th century included the establishment of the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906. This was instrumental to the passing of the Trade Boards Act of 1909, which attempted to introduce minimum wages in some of the more exploitative trades which were dominated by female workers.

As the suffragettes' movement gained momentum, most famously resulting in women over the age of 30 being awarded the right to vote in 1918, further progress was made in 1920 when the Sex Discrimination Removal Act permitted women to work as lawyers and accountants.

World War Two was of course a world-changing event, and one unforeseen side effect was a shift in attitudes towards women in the workplace.

The National Service Act 1941 conscripted all unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30 (later extended to 43) into work. This required women to work in previously traditionally male-dominated jobs, something which continued after the end of the war.

In 1956 female teachers and civil servants were given equal pay to their male counterparts, but it was not until more than a decade later that the famous strike by female workers at the Dagenham Ford Factory led to the Equal Pay Act 1970. This was a hugely significant law which made it unlawful for employers to pay male workers more than their female colleagues who were carrying out the same work.

The Equal Pay Act marked a turning point, and from the 1970s onwards a plethora of legislation ensued as a direct result of the women's rights movement.

Most notably, this included the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, and the Employment Protection Act 1975 which introduced statutory maternity leave and pay.

Later, the Equal Pay Act 1985 extended the principle of equal pay to workers doing work of "equal value" to the employer, even if this was not exactly the same job.

This led over the next three decades to a huge number of equal pay claims in the public sector, most notably by female council staff employed as cleaners, cooks and carers who were able to argue that the work they did was no less valuable to their employers than traditionally male-dominated work such as gardening, road working and bin collecting.

Today we are in the age of the Equality Act 2010, which brought together the raft of different anti-discrimination legislation that had emerged over the preceding 40 years in the UK. This Act makes it illegal to treat an employee unfairly, less favourably or detrimentally (including harassing or victimising them) where that treatment is based on their sex. Discrimination is generally unlawful whether it is intentional or well-intended, direct or indirect.

Most recently, the new Gender Pay Gap Reporting Regulations require all businesses which employ 250+ employees to publish details of the pay disparity between their male and female employees by next month, in an attempt to "name and shame" employers into taking action to address their gender pay gaps.

All in all, the situation for working women has changed dramatically in just 100 years - but we are not there yet. Sexual harassment scandals abound, the debate over the many different reasons for the gender pay gap rumbles on and we continue to see reports of women being made redundant while on maternity leave.

In the area of pay there is also some way to go, as equal pay for equal value is still being sought by many women across the public and private sectors. This has recently included hundreds of supermarket workers at Tesco and Asda.

A great deal of progress has been made over the last century - but we can hope that it will not take another century to see the further cultural, economic and legislative reforms which will enable International Women's Day to become purely a celebration of women's rights in the UK, rather than a fight for them.

Columnist: Page 27

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<B Hundreds of women marched in London on March 6, 1971, to demand equal pay and job opportunities
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 8, 2018
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