Keeping sex equality on the agenda for the new millennium

The emphasis in the 21st century must shift from fighting discrimination to promoting equality between the sexes, says Kamlesh Bahl.

More than 20 years after the creation of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) many changes have been made to reduce inequalities between women and men.

I am proud of the many accomplishments during my five years as chairwoman of the EOC: better rights for part-time workers; the first code of practice on equal pay; highlighting the double discrimination faced by black and ethnic minority women; the development of the business case for equality; and the successful campaign to put equality at the heart of the government's agenda.

However, women are still more likely than men to suffer unfair treatment at the hands of employers and others.

Two things now need to be done if the UK is to achieve genuine equality in the next century.

First a new sex equality law is needed. The old laws have helped change the face of British society, but new problems need new solutions.

There is a host of anomalies in the bewildering array of sex discrimination laws. Differences bet-ween domestic and European app roaches also cause problems.

Earlier this year the EOC consulted widely on proposals for a single statute to bring together the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts and it was delighted to receive overwhelming support. A final set of proposals will be presented to the Government this autumn.

The key change is a move from fighting discrimination, to promoting equal treatment for men and women. Sex equality is a basic human right; the legislation must protect that right. A clear, effective statute will help change the attitudes and actions of individual men and women.

The second change we need is the genuine implementation by the Government of “mainstreaming” – building sex equality into all goals, policies and programmes.

It is hard to find anyone in the Government who opposes mainstreaming. Unfortunately, it is even harder to find government departments which are implementing it.

Mainstreaming is collecting valid data about women and men, analysing it and using the information to ensure equal treatment is built into every structure and policy. It takes resources to do this properly, but without proper mainstreaming the attitudes which create barriers to equal treatment will never be removed.

A new law and mainstreaming are absolutely vital if equality is to be achieved. With these measures in place, the UK can begin the new century with a framework that celebrates the contribution made to society by all of its citizens.