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2                      EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES


Legislation against discrimination.


Laws have been passed in Parliament attempting to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability.  Bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have been set up to make the laws more effective.


The Race Relations Act, 1976, makes it illegal to discriminate against any individual on the ground of race in employment, access to goods and services, education and other areas.  The Act defines THREE WAYS in which discrimination can take place.

(1) Direct discrimination - treating a person less favourably than others would be treated in the same circumstances.  This includes refusing employment, or services, or deliberately giving a poorer standard of service on the grounds of race.

(2) Indirect discrimination - where conditions in a job application exclude certain groups of people and cannot be justified.  An example would be advertising for a good standard of English for a labouring job: this would exclude some people from some racial groups whilst not really being necessary for the job itself.

(3) Victimisation - it is unlawful to victimise people who have made a complaint of discrimination or who have supported such a complaint or who may be about to make a complaint.  Supports people intending to make complaints under the Act or be witnesses.


The Race Relations Act is intended to prevent discrimination and to help people to report it.  The Commission for Racial Equality was set up to help make the Act work; it offers help and support to people who wish to report a complaint of discrimination on racial grounds, and has offices in several major cities.


The Sex Discrimination Act, 1986, makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of their gender.  This Act has similarities to the Race Relations Act.  Direct Discrimination also relates to less favourable treatment.  E.g. refusal of a job on the basis of gender, or poorer service provision.  Indirect discrimination can be seen in the following example: if an upper age limit of 32 has been put on an advertised job, this makes it difficult for women to apply as many women under this age will have stopped work temporarily to raise children.  Victimisation against complainants is also illegal under the Act.   The Equal Opportunities Commission was set up to help and advise people who feel that they have been discriminated against.  It functions similarly to the Commission for Racial Equality.


The Disabilities Discrimination Act, 1995, provides rights pertaining to access to services, recruitment, etc.  Employers must examine the scope for adapting the working environment to allow disabled people to have an equal chance of being considered for jobs.  Such alterations must be reasonable, however.   This law replaces the Disabled Persons Act, 1986, which stipulated that businesses employing more than 20 people had to have at least a quota of three per cent of their workforce registered disabled.



Rehabilitation of offenders


Broadly speaking, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 provides that persons convicted of offences who incur no further convictions during a specified period (the 'rehabilitation period') become 'rehabilitated' persons and their convictions become 'spent'.  The length of the rehabilitation period depends on the sentence the offender received.  Convictions resulting in a prison sentence exceeding 30 months can never become spent.


Individuals with ‘spent’ convictions do not have to declare their records, even when and where these are asked about.   Under the Act, a spent conviction, or failure to disclose a spent conviction or any circumstances connected with it, cannot be a proper ground for dismissing or excluding a person from any office, profession, occupation or employment or for prejudicing a person in any way in any occupation or employment. 


A number of occupations or professions, however, are excluded from the provisions of the Act.  An Exception Act relates, for example, to people such as residential care workers with children, who are required to declare any offences on application forms, regardless of whether or not they would normally be spent.


The organisation which advises ex-offenders on issues such as employment and represents their interests on a national basis is NACRO, the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders.


Discrimination outside of legal provision.      


Unfair treatment may extend to people who are not covered by legislation.   There is, for example, no law against discriminating against people on grounds of their age.  Similar problems relate to sexual orientation (usually homosexuality), political viewpoints and employment status.   In the latter case, this often means that unemployed people are unlikely to be shortlisted for employment, although it may also constitute a reluctance to promote a person from a lowly position (regardless of their merit).   Class is currently unfashionable but is worthy of consideration.


Although these types of discrimination are not covered by British law, your organisation may well have an equal opportunities policy pertaining to these matters; this should be read (if none exists, you should be recommending that such a policy be created).  Similarly, your professional body - for most readers, this will be the Institute of Careers Guidance - will have clear guidelines.






Equal Opportunities.


This has a variety of interpretations. 


In its most literal sense, the term Equal Opportunities refers to all individuals having the same right of access to jobs, services and  education.   These three areas in themselves open up a variety of questions: 


Equal opportunities at work applies to recruitment, to the promotion of individuals within employment and to how they are treated in the workplace. 


There are many examples of unfair discrimination in recruitment.   More than one survey in Britain in the 1990s, for example, found widespread discrimination against people from ethnic minorities: individuals making two identical applications to a workplace, one with a common British name and one with an Asian name, were invited to interview under the ‘white’ application and in the latter case told that the position was already taken.    Women have often been discouraged from entering some types of work because of expectations of physical work; are all women weaker and less physically able than all men?    Many individuals also tend to think that people with one disability (e.g. physical disability or deafness) may also have others (e.g. learning disabilities);  the majority of blind adults, for example, are currently unemployed.


Within the area of promotion, the ‘glass ceiling’ for female employees is notorious. Women are notoriously under-represented in senior positions.   At the time of writing (March, 2000), only one Chief Executive of a British ‘FTSE 100’ company is a woman.  In industry and in higher education, women are paid less than men for the same jobs on a widespread basis.   People from ethnic minorities are also under-represented amongst senior management (compared to their presence within the population as a whole).


Mistreatment at work is another contentious issue.   Lest it be thought that equal opportunities only applies to ethnic minorities, women and people with disabilities, a recent court case applied to the mistreatment of men at work.   Two men, the only males in their office, left their jobs after persistent harassment; they had been subject to unpleasant  jokes at their expense, were always asked to do the manual jobs and were passed over for promotion.    This constituted ‘constructive dismissal’; the individuals left their job apparently of their own accord, but leaving through unreasonable coercion or mistreatment, they are still treated as if they had been dismissed unfairly.


The area of mistreatment is difficult to pin down to a precise code of conduct.  At what point does friendly teasing become harassment?   When are sexual approaches acceptable and when do they constitute unwanted advances?   Different organisations are trying to make their own definitions; again, a reading of your organisation’s codes of conduct is strongly recommended.


Services may include counselling and careers guidance, but may also mean access to more clearly commercial products: theatre, restaurants, fun parks, shops, etc.   Note the point about indirect discrimination, as described in the legislation section: denial of access does not have to be consciously aimed at a group of people.   Part of the point about accusations of ‘institutional racism’ within the police forces of Britain is that the whole culture of a service may be inclined to a particular way of thinking or acting, so that individual workers may treat people unfairly without realising it or may be unwilling to see this as the case even when confronted with the evidence.   


It should also be noted that equal opportunities extends to the promotion as well as the provision of services.   A notorious example was the ‘airbrushing’ of black faces from the cast of employees advertising an automobile company.   More common is the under-representation of minorities in advertising or making fun of certain types of individual.   At the moment, some companies feel that fat people are fair game for this sort of thing.    Although legislation may not apply here, unfair treatment and victimisation are surely the case here.



Although education may be seen as a service, it is one which should be examined further.   It has a huge influence on access to employment, levels of pay and social inclusion.   It is surely crucial, therefore, that equal opportunities are available here.    This may mean access to courses, treatment within courses, progression routes and the nature of advice given about them.



Within personal counselling, careers advice or careers education, consideration needs to be paid to equal opportunities issues.   



Stereotyping is an important issue.   Are you or colleagues consciously or unconsciously classifying a whole group of people in an unnecessary or misleading way?   An old-fashioned example of this was a tutor selecting individuals for a play and giving both black participants the parts of manual workers.   Black people have also been portrayed as ‘musical’, ‘athletic’, etc.; however complimentary this may appear, it is  not the case for all and, more crucially, tends to obscure other attributes and contributions that each individual is in fact likely to have or make.     Similarly, are all women ‘weak’, ‘little’, passive, uninterested in technology?  


This point is important.   One potential student came for an interview with me about health and social care courses; noticing her rather uninspired comments, I asked her a little about how she came to be applying for this area and found that she had really wanted to be an aeronautical engineer.   She had been deterred by comments about airports being ‘no place for women’.     






Food for thought.


Is there any straightforward way of ensuring equal treatment when relationships are formed in a highly personal way?



One possible rule of thumb is to consider it as a right for every  individual to have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential; any unfair or irrelevant barrier to this is likely to be a breach of equal opportunities.


It is important to know the Equal Opportunities guidelines of your employer and professional body.  This must of course be shown as evidence for your NVQ.


As a matter of personal and professional effectiveness, it is also important to consider your own personal stance to equal opportunities as a practitioner.  It is necessary to reflect on your own prejudices, in order to counter them, if you intend to behave fairly towards others.   It may help to think about the following questions:



Ÿ Are there cycles of deprivation or do all individuals have the same choices?


Ÿ Is there such a thing as fair discrimination?  (n.b. how do employers decide on who is to be offered a job?  how do you allocate services when they are scarce?)


          Ÿ Do you believe that everybody should be treated equally?


          Ÿ Should one be considering differences (cultural, gender related, etc.)?


          Ÿ Are there certain types of people who do not deserve services?




The following exercises apply these concerns to careers guidance contexts.


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