Under new legislation, the Gender Equality Duty comes into force on 6th April (this Friday). It compels all public authorities to promote gender equality and eliminate sex discrimination. The theory goes that instead of depending on individuals making complaints about sex discrimination, the duty places the legal responsibility on public authorities to demonstrate that they treat men and women fairly.
It is unmistakeably A Good Thing, although in practice it could turn out to see employers and public service providers go through the motions and convince the enforcers that they are all very politically correct even if they treat their women workers appallingly. The difference between whether it genuinely advances gender equality or just provides a fig leaf for employers is ... strong trade union organisation in the workplace.
However, for some industries - such as the one I work in, transport - this is further complicated by the vague definition of a 'public authority'. The definition given is a body which 'has functions of a public nature', but there is no definitive list of bodies covered.
Trade unions need to fight for the broadest possible definition of 'public authority' so I have today asked my union, RMT, to write to all employers stating that we believe that because they are involved in the provision of public transport, they are covered by the Gender Equality Duty, and asking how they intend to implement it.
Further, the Equal Opportunities Commission's guidelines state that employers should consult trade unions about the implementation of the Duty, so RMT should ask the employers how they intend to do this.
When employers invite RMT to consultations on this matter, we should involve rank-and-file women reps and activists from the company concerned, as they have the best knowledge of issues for women in the workplace and how equality does and doesn't work in that particular company. With all the political will in the world, a male full-time official who has never worked for that company will not be as in touch with the reality of women's experience at work as women workers ourselves.
Unions need to act on this right away. If we leave it too long, the employers may have implemented the Duty in their own, ineffective way, or have established that they are not covered by it.