Equality at work - the media is discussing the wrong issues?

By | February 28, 2011

equalityBy Jessica Guth, Lecturer in Law at The School

Over the last few of weeks I have watched the news stories unfold. First there was the uproar over Sky Sports’ commentators about a female lineswoman, then claims that the TV presenters on ‘Loose Women’ are just as sexist and then jibes about Mexicans and cars on TV programme, Top Gear.

1. Should we be outraged by Sky Sports and Top Gear comments?

I have so far resisted commenting on any of these stories simply because I don’t know what I think. As someone with an interest in equality law I felt it was my professional duty to be outraged.

However, I also really struggled to get too excited about it all. The comments about assistant referee Sian Massey were so stupid and so obviously without foundation that I fail to see how anyone could take it seriously. As for the Top Gear jibes, they were juvenile but were they racist? Yes, but no more so than previous comments made on the show about German precision or Italian flair. I’m not saying they were appropriate, I just think that maybe we have lost our way a little when it comes to equality and how we deal with it in the media, in the work place and in society generally.

2. How often does discrimination in the workplace occur?

Equality law in the form of the Equality Act 2010 offers much which can help make the labour market, education and provision of services more equal. But a quick glance at employment tribunal statistics shows that discrimination in the work place does still occur on an alarmingly regular basis.

3. Does equality law actually work?

Conversations with friends and colleagues are also likely to bring to light some horror stories which may lead us to question whether equality law actually works. What we need, it is often argued, is a shift in attitude. If society doesn’t change its attitude towards women, gay men and lesbians, Muslims, black young men or whatever it may be, the law will make little difference. It will not promote equality and fairness even where it might provide some compensation to the victim.

4. Are we hypocritical about sexist comments?

So if a shift in attitude is needed sexist comments about a clearly very competent football official and the characteristics of Mexicans are unhelpful. In a society which is based on fairness and mutual respect I don’t want to hear men questioning women’s ability to comprehend the off side rule but I also want to be able to roll my eyes and move on when it does happen. I don’t want to hear opinions about any nationality based purely on stereotype, but am I being hypocritical? Don’t we all make comments from time to time which are based on nothing other than stereotypes?

5. Is the media turning equality in a fad?

A shift in attitude will not happen as long as people see equality as a bandwagon or fad and not as something which is of importance to society generally. The more we blow relatively minor incidents out of all proportion, the more we detract from the bigger picture. The more we focus on celebrities getting it wrong, the more we take focus away from the inequalities faced by some people every day.  As well as knowing what the law is, we also need to return some common sense to the debate. Not every throw away comment, silly remark or juvenile joke warrants a claim. Equality should not be about defensive practice, box ticking and compliance – it should be about dialogue, openness and taking responsibility in a way that is proportionate to the context. Unfortunately, media stories about spurious cases being brought for large sums of money and recent news stories do not help in fostering a sense of reasonableness and proportionality.

Having said that, I was today rather belittled by two men in the servicing department of my local car garage and then asked by a salesman whether he should call back when my husband returns from work!

Rolling your eyes at someone’s stupidity when they make stereotypical comments isn’t fine – but do most of us really only acknowledge that it isn’t fine when the joke, comment or action is directed at us?

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Equality at work - the media is discussing the wrong issues?

  1. Trudy Bates

    Our lived experience of reality tells us that discrimination whilst for the most part illegal and perhaps even, dare I say it, unintentional, hasn’t gone away. It is right to assume that no amount of political correctness will lead to genuine equality. Rather, restricting social dialog will only act to drive feelings of difference underground.

    Whilst I agree for the most part, that as a country we have entered a worrying phase of what could be termed extreme political correctness. I wonder though where we would be without it.
    On a personal level I am content that someone who chose to berate a woman lost their job. But this example (SKY) does raise some interesting questions, not least where do you draw the line between a joke based on stereotype and something that may cause offence. As I am also content that the perspective foster parents in today’s news are thankfully unable to offer respite care. As Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beatson quite rightly concluded protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation should take precedence over the right not to be discriminated against on religious ground. Even my own thoughts fly in the face of genuine equality and perhaps suggest a paradox whereby the equality I actually desire is equality for me at the cost of others.

    In short, I think you raise an interesting debate. One which will rage on for eternity or at least whilst we all continue to focus on difference rather than our sameness as human beings.

  2. Ron Drake , Cobbetts LLP

    What an excellent article!

    In answer to the questions raised I provide the following very personal comments:

    1 – We shouldn’t perhaps get outraged unless comments such as those referred to cause objective offense – it is when things said which are objectively objectionable transcend the boundary of what is subjectively acceptable that they become actionable in law as harassment if related to protected characteristics.
    2 – Discrimination occurs more frequently than we realise or perhaps would like, but education rather than coercion creates a more willing pupil, whereas litigation breeds contempt for the law and intransigence of backwoods attitudes.
    3 – Equality Law is a blunt weapon in the armoury against entrenched stereotyping because the law is usually aimed at the mischief of the worst case scenario and rarely changes attitudes – shouldn’t good law reflect prevailing morality rather than mould it, or is the Hart /Devlin debate now dead? I hope not.
    4 – Are we hypocritical? Maybe we have to accept that sometimes we are, but we should never lose sight of the principles of proportionality. Unreasonably disprortionate reaction to stupidity and resorting to law for such a purpose in my experience makes a bad case, and as we all know, bad cases make bad laws!
    5 – Is the media at fault? Where do I start…!?

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