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Women's rights at work - sisters are doing it for themselves

Women's rights at work - sisters are doing it for themselves

With issues of sexual harassment, unequal pay, a lack of flexible working and even the shoes we wear, women still face inequality at work. For International Women’s Day I am looking at some of the issues for women at work in 2018 and how unions successfully tackle these problems.

Unions use a mix of the law, collective bargaining and campaigning to achieve equality. And there are many positive examples of sisters doing it for themselves!

‘Nine to Five’

A constant issue in my case load over the past few years has been the lack of flexibility by employers to enable women to cope with child and elder care. While many employers say they offer flexible working, the reality is very different.

One recent example is Prospect member Ann Downie, who had worked part-time for many years as a senior HR officer. When her employers decided they needed a full-time HR officer, Ann was dismissed because she was unable to work full time due to childcare responsibilities. Prospect brought claims of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.

The tribunal ruled in Ann’s favour and ordered compensation and reinstatement. The employer refused to reinstate her and we are currently awaiting the final remedy judgment.

Women ‘just want equal funds’

Prospect has brought many cases challenging inequality in pay. Most recently, we took an equal pay claim for 76 members in the Met Office. After 18 months of litigation and a breakthrough judgment in favour of the women, we negotiated a new pay system for all staff and additional compensation for the 76. The landmark deal will see the gender pay gap reduce to less than 1% and give significant pay rises for most of the workforce.

Yet when women raise the issue of equal pay, they can face further discrimination. Amy Arnold, a Prospect member working for UK Power Networks, raised complaints about not getting equal pay.  She then applied for a promotion, but the job was given to a less experienced male colleague. Prospect supported her in a successful sex discrimination claim to the Employment Tribunal.

The tribunal found Amy had been victimised for raising pay complaints and the failure to promote her was discriminatory. They stated: “The claimant was clearly perceived as a thorn in their side and when the job vacancy came about she clearly was not going to be preferred under any circumstances.”

‘In these shoes? I don’t think so!’

Work dress codes hit the headlines when Nicola Thorpe, working as a temporary receptionist, was sent home because she refused to wear high heels. The case prompted a parliamentary inquiry and recommendations last year. The research showed that some employers were insisting on high heels, obligatory make-up and even tights of no more than 20 denier.

But it’s not just dress codes that cause problems. A Prospect survey found that many employers fail to make provision for appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for women. Women face difficulties with ill-fitting PPE, including jackets, gloves and trousers, causing discomfort and putting their safety at risk.

‘Step into my office, baby’

With many recent high-profile examples, including the recent President’s Club scandal, sexual harassment has been thrown into the media spotlight. This has shown how prevalent harassment is and has also highlighted the inadequacies of the law.

We sadly see a number of cases of women members facing harassment in their workplace. Prospect reps support women in challenging this behavior and we will pursue legal cases when necessary. 

Prospect is reviewing its workplace guidance on sexual harassment, to provide practical and legal support for branches, reps and members. We are asking members to contact us with their experiences and views on challenging this.


Many of our existing rights derive from European directives. Particularly for women workers, much of our equality and maternity legislation is underpinned by EU law and many judgments from the European Courts have strengthened those rights.

A key example is that on International Women’s Day in 2006 the European Court of Justice heard Prospect’s landmark equal pay case, Bernadette Cadman v Health & Safety Executive. This case created a very strong precedent for fighting further equal pay cases, and Prospect has brought 100s of further cases for members on the back of that one judgment.

There is real worry of a worsening position after Brexit. Prospect is committed to ensuring that all workers’ rights are maintained and that there is no reduction in our rights.

Women’s rights at work playlist

There aren’t too many songs about rights at work, but these ones strike a chord:

  • Sisters are doing it for themselves - Aretha Franklyn & Annie Lennox
  • Nine to five – Dolly Parton
  • Girls just want equal funds – Cyndi Lauper & James Corden (there really is an equal pay version of this pop standard)
  • In these shoes - Kirsty MacColl
  • Step into my office, baby - Belle & Sebastian
  • Mayhem – Imelda May
Marion Scovell

Marion Scovell


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