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Equality must separate difference from discrimination


AN article in the Times last week generated considerable interest. A woman has won a discrimination case against a small kitchen-design company. While experiencing severe financial difficulty, the firm  (with around 20 employees) made her redundant when she was on maternity leave. Other employees were also made redundant and there is no implication that she was singled out. The discrimination revolved around the poor communication from the company, which (no one seems to dispute) was partly motivated by a desire to leave her in peace while on maternity leave. 

The aspect of the case which has attracted attention is the employment tribunal’s judgment that she was discriminated against because she was not invited to Christmas drinks. The drinks were short-notice, informal, at a pub (£200 ‘behind the bar’). A small group of staff, from a struggling company, went for a drink, at the pub at Christmas . . . The tribunal ruled: ‘We accept there was no deliberate decision to exclude the claimant. However, the reason she was not invited was that no one thought about her. That was because she was on maternity leave.’ The claimant is ‘entitled to compensation for injury to feelings’. 

No wonder the ruling has attracted attention. Who knew that trying to run a small company, provide employment, attempt Christmas cheer, would invite such censure? Who, in the end, will benefit from the direction we head in as we too easily see ourselves as victims, take offence, cry discrimination?

Recently many of us cheered when the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, made a speech which indicated her willingness to challenge this tedious narrative that increasingly entangles us. According to Truss, the Conservatives will adopt an approach to ‘equality’ issues which will be firmly rooted in ‘core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity’ alongside ‘individual humanity and dignity’. Gone will be ‘quotas and targets’ and the pursuit of ‘equality of outcome’. Gone will be the approaches of the Left ‘captured as they are by identity politics, loud lobby groups and the idea of “lived experience”.’  

This all sounds good, and is long overdue. But there was one aspect of Truss’s speech where she seemed keen to repeat politically correct narratives rather than to challenge them. This was when she spoke about women, work and discrimination.  

Truss said: ‘It is appalling that pregnant women suffer discrimination at work.’ She didn’t elaborate. That’s disappointing because we have reached the point where if you even query this kind of statement you risk being dismissed as a discriminatory dinosaur. We all know that a pregnant woman is experiencing something profound that makes her different. She carries a new life within her. She might be at work feeling utterly sick and completely exhausted. She might be somewhat distracted and no longer give a damn about the entire workplace’s raison d’etre. These things should be openly discussable. Imagine being a small employer, hardly able to hold a venture together, and being worried about even raising these matters with an employee for fear of the label of discrimination. Truss could help, by more openly discussing what is fast becoming unmentionable.

She tells us ‘it is appalling that . . . women may be encouraged to dress in a certain way to get ahead’. What does she mean? Did Truss make her speech in trainers? No one would have minded flats. There are plenty of jobs for women who prefer T-shirt and jeans and Doc Marten boots. There are thousands of women who love the vocabulary of high fashion and style. It’s the too-easy ‘woman as victim’ narrative that is disappointing. 

Finally, Truss said: ‘If women opened businesses at the same rate as men – we could add £250billion to the economy.’ This certainly needs some unpicking. Firstly, what does it imply about the role of the individual in society and the purpose of life? When did that become ‘adding £250billion to the economy’? Does Truss conceive of us as free individuals, members of families and communities – or are we soldiers of the state, servants to the economy? 

Then there is the implication that what women are currently doing with their time is of lower value. How does Truss know that, as we add £250billion to the economy with one hand, we won’t take it away with the other? Think of all the things women do, when they don’t open businesses at the same rate as men. Look after elderly relations. Create homes. Bring up children. Run PTAs. Support friends. Establish foodbanks. Be a grandmother. Stick with low-risk, sometimes part-time, work so they can be home for the kids. Why is any of this of less value than ‘opening businesses at the same rate as men’?  

And of course, there is the implied disadvantage, the suggestion of discrimination. Something must be preventing women from opening businesses at the same rate as men. Where’s the evidence? In the same speech, Truss has committed the Government to rooting policy in ‘facts not fashion’. Difference does not automatically imply discrimination. Women have agency. It is insulting to hear endlessly that what women spend so much time doing is somehow second-best; the result of some kind of constraint. It undervalues what women spend a lot of time doing. It undervalues home, community, children, friends, family, work at the PTA and at the foodbank. 

Women are different from men; it’s encoded in our DNA. Acknowledging that difference, being willing to explore it, will ultimately benefit women. For a start, we want our own single-sex spaces, of which Truss has been a robust champion. We want sex-appropriate healthcare. We want single-sex sports. While individuals are free and unique, as a group women might more generally value different things from men. It is possible that this, rather than always discrimination, might explain many of our differences.

So all credit to Liz Truss for throwing the door open to wider discussion about equality, opportunity, and aspiration. But let her throw it wide open, to free speech and recognition of and respect for many women’s preference to put home, childrearing and community before paid work. As Truss says, may that debate be anchored in facts not fashion; with our common humanity, but an openness to our differences, at its core.

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Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government, served two terms as a Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham and is currently a full-time mother. She tweets as @carolinefff

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