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Equality in the workplace

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‘THIS is still a workplace designed by men for men. There is a great deal that this government still has to do to make sure that we can allow women to play their full part.’

Those words, from Women and Equalities minister Maria Miller, set the scene for a report published by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee last week, discussing ‘Women in the workplace’.1 Given that women make up 55 per cent of practising veterinary surgeons, and the proportion is set to increase further, the report, which calls on the Government to do more to tackle female under-representation in certain sectors of the economy, might at first sight appear to be of peripheral interest to the veterinary profession. Nevertheless, with discussion of issues such as stereotyping of jobs, pay inequality, maternity leave, childcare and flexible working, it provides much food for thought. A section on women in science is clearly relevant to a research-based profession while, with the RCVS currently looking into why no female members put themselves forward for election to its Council this year (VR, June 22, 2013, vol 172, p 651), a chapter on ‘Women in senior positions’ may also be of interest.

Among points made in the report are that women comprise over half of the population and, ‘as such, a significant amount of public funds are invested in them. Ensuring that women, as well as men, have the opportunity to realise their maximum potential is, therefore, as much an economic argument as one about equality.’ Also, it points out, 43 years after the Equal Pay Act, equality in pay between men and women has not been achieved. There are, it suggests, many factors that affect this, including the types of job traditionally thought of as being more suitable for women, childcare being seen as primarily the responsibility of women, and the opaqueness of a pay system that hides unequal remuneration. It also draws attention to a preponderance of men reaching the highest levels of the workforce ‘who – often unintentionally – make strategic decisions based on their own experiences, rather than on more diverse experiences, that in turn directly affect many other people.’

Discussing job stereotyping, the select committee argues that the root of the problem lies in the cultural context in which career decisions are made, not from innate differences between men and women, and highlights the importance of appropriate role models and good early careers advice in attempting to address this. Regarding disparities in pay, it says that published examples of equal pay best practice in the private sector provide evidence that this is good not only for individuals but also for business, and urges the Government to promote this message more widely. It also calls on the Government to reconsider its recent decision to ‘call time’ on a requirement for organisations to undertake Equality Impact Assessments, arguing that this change in policy contradicts other government measures aimed at achieving equality in the workplace.

Flexible working, the committee points out, is not just an issue for women, but one which affects all employees with caring responsibilities. It notes that many small to medium sized enterprises provide good examples of how flexible working can benefit both businesses and staff; it recommends that the Government should draw attention to these and invest resources in advice in this area ‘to dispel the myth that flexible working is problematic and cannot work’.

On maternity leave and childcare, the committee draws attention to evidence it received regarding pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and urges the Government to reverse a decision to introduce fees for pregnancy discrimination cases. It welcomes reforms suggested in the Government's Children and Families Bill, including a right to shared parental leave, which, it says, should lead to parental leave becoming ‘a more gender-neutral matter’. At the same time, it acknowledges that ‘for some small businesses, parental rights are not without occasional, but potentially significant, risk to those businesses’.

The select committee's report covers the entire national workplace and is clearly not targeted at any one sector in particular. However, it would be interesting to know, given the way the gender balance of the veterinary profession has shifted over the past 20 years, whether the veterinary sector could be said to be dealing with some of the issues raised in its report any better than other sectors. Certainly, in a debate at last year's BVA Congress, speakers suggested that, without being complacent, the profession was adapting to its changing gender balance, with new ways of working, including flexible working, being found (VR, November 10, 2012, vol 171, p 466). Similarly, one could point to the number of women starting to occupy senior positions in academia, practice, industry and research, and expect this to increase further in the years ahead. Ultimately, it could be the proportion of women in senior posts as much as equal pay that provides a measure of success in achieving equality in the veterinary workplace, and this might usefully be monitored. The aim, overall, should not be to end up with a workplace designed by women for women, necessarily, but to create something that could be better all round – a workplace designed by both men and women, that works for the benefit of all.

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