Sexual discrimination involves treating someone differently, usually less favourably, because of his or her gender.
The way it was In the past, men and women were treated very differently. Boys and girls were taught to follow particular roles in society based on stereotypical ideas about what they were considered capable of doing. Men and women were – and still are to an extent – expected to exhibit typically masculine or feminine behaviour.
Such stereotyped views include seeing males as strong, aggressive, and tending to hide their emotions. Females, on the other hand, are seen as sensitive, over-emotional, and gentle.
As a result of these views, women were often denied opportunities and experiences that men received as a matter of right.
Historically, families were closely knit, and the mother and father worked as a team. The father went out to work to earn money to feed the family, whereas the mother looked after the home, the children, and took on what work she could to gain ‘extra’ money.
Changing times During the Industrial Revolution, women started to take on paid work, particularly in the textile industry. In addition, many women worked as ‘outworkers’ in the home. Some women worked ‘in service’ – as a housemaid for example. Other jobs that were seen as appropriate for women included nursing, teaching, secretarial work, or shop work. It was difficult – almost impossible – for women to become doctors or scientists.
World War I demonstrated that women were capable of doing the things that men could do. While the men went off to fight, women took over the jobs that men had previously held. This included working and running farms and businesses, and taking key positions in local government. They also worked in factories which, until then, had been very much a male occupation.
A group of women led by Emily Pankhurst – the suffragettes – campaigned for equal rights in voting. They wanted women to be given the same right as men, to vote for the nation's government.
It is debatable whether the work of the suffragettes, or the success of women during World War I, actually gained women the vote; nevertheless in 1918, women were given the right to vote, albeit under certain conditions. Since then, there have been a number of changes in society that have helped to give women the same opportunities and experiences that men enjoy.
equal access to education The Sex Discrimination Act states that all children should have equal access to education, The National Curriculum (2000) requires boys and girls to be taught the same subjects. Schools must have an equal opportunities policy that describes how the needs of both boys and girls will be catered for.
equal access to jobs Many women now take on jobs that were traditionally held by men. Such jobs include greater female representation at management level. Even so, in many professions (like teaching, for example), although women make up a large proportion of the workforce, they do not occupy a proportionate number of senior positions.
equal access to politics In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister. There has been in an increase in the number of female politicians, although they are still outnumbered by men.
equal access to sport There are now many female teams, both professional and amateur, who play traditional ‘male’ sports such as football, rugby, and cricket. However, they do not get equal coverage from the media or anywhere near equal support.
The Sex Discrimination Act (1975) states that it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against people because of their sex or because they are married.
Direct discrimination involves treating a person less favourably because of his or her sex; for example, not interviewing a man because he might not fit in with a female workforce.
Indirect discrimination is when an employer imposes certain conditions on a job that makes it less possible for one sex to take part; for example, imposing minimum heights that are unnecessary, and which would prevent a number of women from applying.
An employer may specify a certain sex for a job if that job requires a man or a woman to be employed for purposes of privacy or decency (for example, a girls' PE teacher), or if the occupation can only reasonably be filled by a man or a woman (for example, a man to play the role of King Henry V).
The Equal Pay Act (1970) states that a person doing the same job should be paid equally regardless of their sex.
The Equal Opportunities Commission defines sexual Harassment as: ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex, affecting the dignity of women and men at work. This can include unwelcome, physical, verbal, or nonverbal conduct’.
Sexual harassment includes lewd comments, unwanted intimate contact, and sexual assault. Employers must take steps to prevent and deal with incidents of sexual harassment.
It would be a mistake to think that only women are discriminated against because of their sex. Now that traditional working practices have changed, and strategies and laws to protect women are in place, it may be men who are discriminated against in the future. In education for example, females are leaving schools with better qualifications than males. It has been suggested that schools match the way in which girls learn but do not necessarily motivate, interest, or inspire boys.
In addition, the traditional role of the male is changing – often men take on the role of child carer, yet they are not necessarily given the same support as women.
For more information or advice you can contact:
Equal Opportunities Commission, Overseas House, Quay Street Manchester M3 3HN; phone: (0161) 833 9244
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