Naushabah Khan: My friend’s terrible tale of sexual discrimination shows why Labour must act to protect women at work

2nd December, 2017 9:00 am

I have a confession, despite always being a passionate feminist since I can remember; time and experience have helped me to understand just how tough things can be. 

And it’s not just me. I’ve seen female friends of mine – who are neither overly political nor on a self-confessed mission to single handily bring down the patriarchy – come to the same conclusions. The problem is widespread, often difficult to prove and rarely spoken of; whether it’s the look on the face of the job interviewer who sees a thirty-something woman walk in the room and immediately wonders if they will have children, or the abuse of power, like the misogyny and sexual harassment that has dominated the media headlines in recent weeks. 

Most women I know can point to one such example and for the most part, they feel completely powerless to act.

Recently a very close friend of mine and her husband went through a truly distressing experience, losing their first child at 25 weeks. I can’t begin to comprehend how difficult an experience this was for them and just how heart-breaking it must have been.

Now this woman is one of the strongest I know and when she took the decision to return to work a few weeks later I knew that she was doing what is right for her. As she told me, she wanted to get back her focus, “attempt to piece my life together after a truly devastating experience, but also show my commitment to my employer”.

She was aware she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and was grateful for the support from her employer, including access to counselling. Both she and her husband worked at a senior level for a global company and she had been there for the best part of ten years.

Going back, even to a job she loved, was not easy. Nobody wants to return to work after maternity leave and to then explain what happened. For the most part the company dealt with this sensitively. So you can imagine my disbelief when only two weeks later the same friend rang me to tell she had been made redundant, for “cost-saving” reasons. She was the only female member of the leadership team, which alongside her comprised eight men, and the only employee of the 1,450 strong function to suffer this fate.  

No cost saving protocol was applied and, exactly a month after she left, the same leadership team took part in their annual Thames boat tour, costing in the region of £10,000, with the alcohol flowing from 10am and the tradition upheld of ending the night in a strip club.

My friend was in shock. How can an employer treat someone with such blatant disregard? Would they have done the same if she had been recovering from a physical rather than a mental illness? And it didn’t end there. Not only was she left jobless, but her employer also informed her that she was no longer entitled to the counselling service they had been providing her to help her recovery – one which was hugely helpful but ultimately unaffordable for her. 

A painful battle ensued as she had to fight for the basic rights owed to her, including maternity payments, and she said: “at no point was I seeking enhanced terms, simply the pay that I was legally and rightly entitled to. The only difference between me and other mums on maternity leave was that my baby had died”.

Finally, they paid for her silence. The terms of her settlement bound her from openly telling this story or bringing the firm “into disrepute”, which was clearly a clause they felt necessary to shield themselves.

Did she want to fight it? Yes she did. But worn out by her personal experience, fearful that she may never get a reference, worried about her financial position and advised that a tribunal would be lengthy, she decided to take the deal on their terms.  

At the end of the day this big corporation took all the steps necessary to protect their position, exploit an employee’s vulnerabilities and make it very difficult to expose a decision that reeks of discrimination. It was a decision my friend says will “leave a scar for a very long time”.

The scary thing is that such experiences are not uncommon. And yes, of course, harassment or bad employment practices are not gender specific, but they do disproportionately affect women. 

Historically, Labour has shown real leadership when it has come to rights of women in the workplace, introducing key laws that have transformed the culture, including changes to maternity leave and pay, and the introduction of the employment act in 2008 and the equality act in 2010.  

Unfortunately, subsequent Tory led-governments have done much to erode the rights afforded under such legislation, tipping the balance in favour of the employers rather than employees. Couple this with cultural practices that vary from industry to industry and the picture is not a rosy one.

Furthermore, many businesses are able to find loopholes in legislation or tread a fine line without actually breaking the law. Even when there is legal case to answer, women often feel powerless to act and worried about how taking any action will harm their career or how they would manage financially, physically and emotionally through legal proceedings.

New legislation which allows greater scrutiny is welcome, and this year the government finally decided to take a closer look at the gender pay gap, announcing it will force companies with over 250 employees to publish their figures – albeit this was taken from the 2015 Labour manifesto

Now more concrete steps are necessary to get to the heart of the problem of women being undermined. Labour’s commitment to reversing employment tribunal fees, which quietly capsized maternity discrimination law, is one example. Such initiatives, coupled with an increased awareness of workplace rights and changes to paternity leave and pay, could go some way to tackling this issue, but it all needs to happen sooner rather than later.

As Jo Brand said, a few weeks ago , on Have I Got News for You, “…..for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.”

Naushabah Khan is a Labour councillor for Gillingham South and a former parliamentary candidate.

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