In the nineteenth century most women in Britain did not have many of the legal and political rights which men had. Men were the dominant member of the family and women were dependent on them for money and support. A wide range of jobs and opportunities were not available to women. The main role of a woman’s life was expected to be that of a housewife and mother, having dinner ready on the table, looking after the children and cleaning, while the male character went out to work to provide an income for his family. Women were seen as the weaker sex and men were seen as strong and the ruler.

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It was a strongly male dominated society. However, women were not going to stand for this much longer and in the twentieth century began to fight for equal rights, hence the uprising of the feminist’s movement, such as the Suffragettes. This was to be the start of a long hard upward struggle. In this essay, a background of the different stages undertaken by women since the twentieth century will be examined. Thus, allowing one to understand the first steps towards equality. Furthermore, discrimination at work and arguments relating with equal opportunities will be faced.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the suffragette movement won the right for women to vote in parliamentary elections. By 1919, all women over thirty could vote. This was subsequently decreased to twenty-one in nineteen twenty-eight. For the first time this put women equal to men in relation to voting rights. Sexual discrimination, or at least the abolishment of it, is a prominent issue in equal opportunities. Several different Acts have been implemented to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender, namely amongst these have been the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Equal Value Amendment which came into force in 1984.

The Equal Value Amendment states that if a women can show that her work is “of equal value to that of a mans – where equal value is defined in terms of the demands made in the job – skill, effort and decision making, a comparator must be selected who has to be employed in the same workplace and by the same employer” (Eaton, 2004). The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Race Relations Act of 1976, both refer to direct and indirect discrimination.

Direct discrimination is treating an individual less favourably than another because of their sex, martial status or race. Indirect discrimination refers to an employer adding requirements for a position which are not necessary or relevant for the job and which puts a significantly larger portion of one sex or racial group at a disadvantage. The implications of this legislation for the Human Resources department means that any advertisements, notes and circulars need to be checked and altered where necessary, the selection procedures and job descriptions will also need to be examined. The HR department will also have to conduct a review of pay strategy, systems and wage rates. Equal opportunities are very much an issue for the human resources department.

“During recent years women have made a significant progress in entering the managerial positions in corporations as the proportion of women managers increased by almost 26% between 1970 and 1992” (Powell, 1994). Here as the conflict perspective states, a change was brought about in society due to the power struggle between men and women for power and prestige. But still they, “are held back from reaching top managerial positions as statistics indicate that between 1979 and 1991 the ratio of women in top management positions increased by only 2%. This is what is often referred to as the glass ceiling phenomena” (Powell, 1994).

This is an invisible barrier that prevents women from reaching top management positions not because of lack of skills or abilities but just because of their sexual orientation. The position this barrier is placed at differs depending on the organisation as well as the industry. “Men usually derive their power and authority in society from the kind of work they do and the position they might hold in their organization whereas traditionally women have done this through their roles in the family” (Wolf, 1979: 98-101).

This is due to the conventional societal settings where the primary responsibility of females is of marriage and child-bearing and their role as bread earners for the family is considered secondary, thus, not being able to attain positions of power in the work setting. “According to gathered data, even as the society progresses and women shift towards paid work they are unable to obtain positions of authority and power in higher level management positions from where they can influence the setting of the workplace” (Jacobs, 1995). Preference is still given to men over women even if they have the same kind of education and professional skills. (Wolf, 1979)

This goes in line with the functionalist sociological perspective, according to which, women and men have clearly specified roles in society. On one hand, women perform the so called expressive roles, such as, providing their children with emotional and understanding support. On the other hand, men perform the instrumental roles, more simply work. According to the functionalists this is the most efficient way for a family to operate.

Certain factors have been outlined which could explain the glass ceiling. One bias being that it is inherent in a patriarchal society, where men intentionally want to keep women in positions where they remain dependent. Another bias, which exists, centres on the similar-to-me effect. Here, a person would give more favourable evaluation to someone who is similar to him/her in terms of background and attitude. Thus, “if top management positions are mostly held by males they would unintentionally prefer to promote a man rather than a woman to a top management position” (Powell, 1994). Becker’s “Human Capital Theory” could also explain the discrimination that is observed in corporations.

According to him, the promotions, authority and the pay that is received by an individual, does not only depend on his/her education. Several times it depends on the amount of money or resources that the individual has invested in further broadening their skills. Another discrimination within the working environment is called, evaluative discrimination. This is when female employees undertake work tasks which were initially perceived to be a man’s skill but are paid considerably less than the males. This may happen even when they possess the same skills and abilities as men, and perform the same tasks just as efficiently.

This has also been linked to the wage setting process whereby the high presence of females in an occupation is said to be relatively lower than men. This has been shown by studies, “which reflect that the occupations with high concentration of women workers have relatively lower wages when compared to male dominated occupations which require the same level of skills and work. Thus evaluative discrimination does not target an individual but the whole occupation” (Hultin & Szulkin, 1999).

On the other hand job discrimination targets individuals rather than the occupation. Here, women performing the same job as men, within the same organisation are discriminated against with lower wages. Though, “unjust treatment like this is illegal in most of the developed countries it still exists in third world countries where women are paid less than men when they are performing the same work” (Stockdale & Crosby, 2004). This is exactly what the conflict perspective states about gender stratification. Men have devised the sexual division of labour which lets them have an upper hand in their relations with women due to the higher prestige and income men receive.