Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Strategic and Governance Issues for Senior Managers

Diane Gilhooley, Partner and Head of Eversheds Sutherland’s UK and International Education Practice, explains why equality is top of the agenda for many institutions.

The focus on equality, diversity and inclusion in the higher education sector is more acute than ever.

Gender pay gap reporting has already highlighted the under-representation of women in senior positions, and forthcoming ethnicity pay gap reporting requirements are likely to reveal an even starker picture in relation to BAME staff.

The issue of sexual harassment in the sector and what steps should be taken to tackle it effectively remains as topical as ever.

HEIs also need to bear in mind the extra responsibilities that apply to them under the public sector equality duty and their governance requirements in addressing these issues, and balancing their obligations to protect freedom of speech/expression and to promote and advance equality, diversity and inclusion.

Scrutiny of these areas provides an ongoing challenge for university leaders to protect their institution’s reputation, both internally and externally, and it is therefore no surprise that these are the topics that are high on the list of priorities for many senior managers. This is why we have chosen them for discussion at our session at the AHUA Spring Conference on 2 April 2019.

Sexual harassment

The issue of sexual harassment remains a high profile one, with scrutiny of the current environment taking place at the highest levels of government. Last July the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee published its report on sexual harassment in the workplace.

This contains far-reaching recommendations on changes to the law and current tribunal process for dealing with harassment claims, including the introduction of a mandatory duty on employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment (with a breach “carrying substantial financial penalties”) supported by a statutory code of practice setting out what employers need to do to meet the duty.

The government responded to the report on 18 December 2018 with an announcement of a package of 12 measures including consultation on a new statutory duty and code of practice. Interestingly, however, the first consultation exercise to emerge has been on the controversial area of the use of confidentiality clauses in contracts of employment and settlement agreements.

Whilst the government is not advocating an outright ban on the use of such clauses, it does intend to impose conditions which restrict their use.

From a sector perspective we have seen the 1752 Group publish a number of recommendations in their report “Silencing students: institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education” as well as separate recommendations as to what a disciplinary process for dealing with staff sexual misconduct should cover.

In our session on 2 April 2019 we will consider the challenges in managing sexual harassment complaints, how institutions can best protect their reputation (especially if the traditional method of using confidentiality provisions is no longer appropriate or advisable) and the role of senior managers in this process.

Protecting freedom of speech and promoting equality

Universities are subject to the duty to protect freedom of speech, whilst at the same time eliminating harassment. Sometimes these duties have the potential to conflict, but how do you get the right balance and how do your duties fit in with demands for safe spaces and no-platforming?

We will consider this difficult area and look at the recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report on freedom of speech in universities and the EHRC guide for universities on freedom of expression.

Under-representation and equality

The first set of statistics on the gender pay gap were published last year and at the time of writing, the deadline for the publication of the second year’s statistics is fast approaching. This will represent the first chance for a year-on-year comparison, and if your gap is not closing – or only closing slowly – there is likely to be greater scrutiny this time around on what steps you have/are taking and their effectiveness.

It is therefore no coincidence that the last few months have seen a number of reports from the Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission with guidance on the sort of steps that may help in reducing the pay gap. Many of these actions can be equally applicable in relation to ethnicity pay gaps.

Therefore, in our session we will consider strategies for dealing with under-representation and promoting equality, including the role of positive action and other initiatives and critical interventions to accelerate the pace of change. We will also provide an update on the introduction of ethnicity pay reporting and what that may entail.

I very much look forward to seeing you on 2 April 2019 for our interactive session on these important topics and to share our thoughts and experiences with you.