Forty years of equal opportunities

Women’s rights changed for ever, 40 years ago, on December 29.

It was on this date in 1975 that legislation - which was radical at the time - arrived, introducing a woman’s right to equal status in the workplace in the UK. The Sex Discrimination Act had come into force.

Naz Shah, the current Labour MP for Bradford West who has campaigned for women’s rights, said that the anniversary is a cause for celebration. The Yorkshire-born politician thinks, though, that this is also a time to consider how far society still has to go, in terms of delivering rights for women.

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“It was massive,” she said, reflecting on the period of change. “It was one of the building blocks for equality. It has led on to lots of other things, such as preventing racial discrimination.

“Forty years on, I recognise and celebrate that, and we have seen some changes, like a third of people in the House being women and maternity leave. That’s phenomenal. However, there is still a way to go yet. If you look at the FTSE and boardrooms, they are still male-dominated.”

The workplaces of the Seventies were very different to the ones of today though, with widespread opposition to equal pay for women from employers and trade unions. The rules that came in helped to address that.

Sex discrimination by employers, unless they employed five or fewer people, became illegal, as was any bias by landlords, companies, schools and restaurants. Women were to be treated the same way as men in education, housing and employment.

Job advertisements were supposed to be sexless, preventing positions being exclusively for one gender. There was also a drive to change everyday language with firemen, for example, being referred to as a firefighters.

1975 was the International Women’s Year - devised by the United Nations - and the changes in the UK came at the end of those forward-thinking 12 months. It was in the year that Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead a British political party after she won the Conservatives’ leadership contest.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) was also created as a result of the 1975 changes. Under the new law, it was the duty of this body to promote equality of the sexes.

The EOC started issuing guidelines discouraging advertisers from showing women in roles which were stereotypical at the time, such as domesticity or in submissive work. Many advertisers took note of this.

All of those steps have helped combine to change women’s status which can be seen today. The pay difference between men and women was 40% in 1975 - and that gap has more than halved, four decades later.

There are also people who even go as far as saying that they do not feel there is an issue between men and women these days. Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, recently stated that view.

Whatever your view on that remark, the fact that people can even talk about there being no differences between men and women in workplaces, these days, is evidence of just how much times have evolved. Back in 1975, it was not a claim that could be made. Those laws, passed 40 years ago, catalysed the change.