It’s all too easy to become too enamoured of the progress that has been made on sexism and discrimination at work, to think of it as some kind of 1970s Life on Mars problem.
But just like a struggling Labour government and IRA terrorism, it’s back in the public eye.
A new study has found that women and ethnic minorities are under-represented at more than half of businesses in the region. And figures like this only reveal the problem to a certain extent – there’s always a level of “soft discrimination”.
It’s not simply about women being turned down for jobs in favour of men, but being pressured – whether overtly or not – into lower-paid jobs and paid less than their male counterparts even if they are working in the same positions.
But regardless of this, the type of heavy-handed legislation Harriet Harman is proposing today will be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
No matter how important that nut is, the sledgehammer’s just too much.
The government itself described the goal of the equality bill as to “promote fairness and equality of opportunity; tackle disadvantage and discrimination; and modernise and strengthen our law to make it fit for the challenges that our society faces today and in the future”.
Given the record of the government on red tape, it’s not surprising that the British Chambers of Commerce described it as a potential “bureaucratic nightmare” when it was first announced last year.
Positive discrimination is still discrimination, and forcing it upon employers is unfair to suitable candidates who get turned down as much as it is to employers if they are forced to change their decisions on who they employ. People – whether they are minorities or otherwise – are too complex to be treated and sorted under easy labels.
The figures for the ethnic and gender makeup of the West Midlands workforce are disappointing, but it is foolish to read too much about attitudes and work practices into stark figures.
It’s too much of a rhetorical leap to jump straight from statistical inequality to assuming things about the way businesses work. And enforcing a statistical equality will only breed some resentment, preventing proper equality.
At a time when red tape is commonly brought up as one of the most serious problem facing small businesses struggling with the recession, to burden them with more might end up destroying workplaces rather than making them more equal.