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View from the Chair: Making women welcome at work

View from the Chair: Making women welcome at work
'View from the Chair' article by Chief Commissioner Geraldine McGahey

The employment rate here for women increased by 2.2 percentage points over the last year to 68%, but Northern Ireland is still the joint lowest employer of women in the UK. We are surely missing a trick by not tapping into this currently untapped talent pool.

On 16 October, the Commission, in partnership with PWC, is hosting its free Women at Work seminar for employers wanting to create and maintain a workplace that is inclusive and productive, and that includes considering how they recruit, treat and promote women at work.

There are several main areas for employers to consider if they want to attract and retain women and avoid falling foul of the law. While these areas are not exhaustive, they are worth highlighting here.

Firstly, employers must have proper procedures in place to ensure women are not discriminated against when applying for jobs and are also protected from discrimination while they are at work. In addition to having these procedures in place, senior leaders must actively ensure inclusive workplaces are maintained to avoid costly mistakes at an employment tribunal.

Right from the start, employers should be critically evaluating their processes for recruiting and selecting their employees, making it clear that women are welcome and encouraged to apply. This is particularly important for jobs where women don’t normally work, so ensuring that any barriers are removed and stereotypical messages are not conveyed as to what is women’s work and what is not.  

To retain women in the workplace, employers should also have clear guidance on how pregnant and new mothers are treated, how sexual harassment is dealt with and should ensure flexible working, caring responsibilities, parental leave, breast feeding and the menopause are provided for.

Many pregnant women continue to experience less favourable treatment because of their pregnancies and following their return to work. The level of pregnancy and maternity discrimination complaints to our discrimination advice line is consistently high; it is always the most common sex discrimination complaint.

Pregnant woman and new mothers have legal employment rights which are designed to protect their health and safety and their expected or newborn children. They also have contractual protections designed to prevent unlawful discrimination because of their pregnancy.

Providing flexible working can be attractive for those with caring responsibilities, which often, though not always, means women. Earlier this year, Wired.UK reported that flexible working ranks second after pay as an attraction, and that 83% of mothers preferred flexible or hybrid working.  Employers should be aware that all employees have a right to request flexible working and if employers refuse such a request, they must have an objective and justifiable reason for doing so, bearing in mind they may have to justify their decision at an employment tribunal.

Reports of sexual harassment continue to be one of the most common complaints made to the Commission. In fact, last year, complaints of sexual harassment made up 22% of all sex discrimination complaints, compared to an average of 14% over the previous ten years.

Sexual harassment occurs when a person subjects another to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, for example inappropriate sexual contact or lewd comments.

Cases supported by the Commission have also demonstrated that an employer’s duty of care extends to workplace events beyond normal working hours and it is important that employers recognise their legal responsibilities extend to social occasions associated with work.

Employers should be able to show that all employees clearly understand what language and behaviours are acceptable, as well as having a robust complaints procedure in place. Managers must investigate promptly and thoroughly when they are made aware of an allegation of sexual harassment, but ALL employees should make it clear, if they see harassment or bullying at work, that it is unacceptable and that they support their co-workers on the receiving end of such behaviour. Everyone has responsibilities and any employee who is aware of an incident of harassment or bullying should alert a manager or supervisor to it.

Not only is the protection of women, and indeed all those protected by equality legislation, enshrined in law, but it also makes sound business sense for employers in Northern Ireland to foster an inclusive workforce.

Retaining staff is another obvious benefit of a welcoming and inclusive workplace.  It reduces recruitment and training costs and the risk of losing valued employees to the competition. The adoption of parent and child friendly policies in the workplace can be particularly attractive to women and indeed to any parent or carer.

Anti-discrimination laws apply to women at all stages of their lives.  It is a welcome development that employers are more aware of the challenges faced by women experiencing symptoms of the menopause and many are taking steps to de-stigmatise discussion of the menopause and have changed workplace practices to better accommodate employees going through it.

To assist employers, the Commission, alongside the Labour Relations Agency and the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions, have developed guidance to help them support staff through menopause in the workplace.

Organisations and businesses of all sizes are recognising the value and importance of a workplace that is safe, inclusive, and welcoming. Women are an underused resource that can contribute to their employers’ business success. Ensuring your policies take account of what works for women, how, when and where they work, how their days are structured and their safety and well-being at work will go a long way to helping with that.


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