We will be looking at a wide variety of sources to map out the timeline of events and actors that have influenced change in this area. Combining archival research and first-hand reflections of a number of those key actors, the project examines the law in action, as agency and as experience. We want to understand what types of legal tools and campaigning strategies have proved most or least effective across time, and why, as well as what events or actions were the key drivers of, or barriers to change.

Equality in the workplace matters now just as much as it did when this legislation was enacted, and it’s something industries, institutions and workplaces still don’t always get right. Much has been achieved in the last 50 years by innumerable actors – institutions, political and otherwise, individuals and campaigning groups have worked hard to push for, create, implement and use legislation to improve gender equality in the workplace, and there is much to learn from what has gone before.

Significant events in recent years raise questions around the future direction of equality legislation. For example, the departure of the UK from the European Union, and ongoing debate around Scottish independence have caused considerable debate regarding the future direction of equalities architectures and legal frameworks – with outcomes remaining unclear. The work of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission was recently reviewed by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee (HC 1470, July 2019), which recommended refocusing its work and a broadening of the role to a new single labour market enforcement body. Any likely shift away from the EU raises questions about the previous inter-relationship between UK and EU law over the last 50 years, and its (dis)entanglement in order to plan a future legislative path.

The cultural context also plays a key role in influencing change. Gender-based discrimination in the workplace has attracted significant public debate in the UK and internationally via #MeToo. Key UK cases such as Samira Ahmed’s successful equal pay tribunal against the BBC, which also highlighted the race pay gap and the difficulty of giving intersectionality legal form; the ‘Back to 60 Campaign’ to reverse the decision to equalise state pension ages for men and women, concerns about bullying and sexual harassment in the House of Commons, and the current lack of employers’ liability for ‘third party harassment’ (exposed through treatment of female staff at the Presidents’ club dinner).

Cropped shot of women protesting at women’s rights / #MeToo demonstration Credit: Tassii via Getty Images

This is a live issue; the need to chart fully the origins, strengths and limitations of the legal approach that has developed in the UK across time is a pressing one that will feed into current-day awareness, and evaluation of past, present and future frameworks.

We are grateful to the Arts & Humanities Research Council for funding this work, and recognising the importance of a retrospective view at this political, social and economic crossroads.