A wide range of women’s organisations had campaigned actively for a sex discrimination bill across the first half of the 1970s. The new legislation, brought in under Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1974-75, was steered through by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. The 1975 Act applied to England, Wales and Scotland only, with a separate Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order enacted in 1976.

The Act was radical in terms of its intentions and it was a landmark achievement that was highly necessary given the limitations of the Equal Pay Act (which simply made unequal pay for ’like work’ unlawful).  In relation to the workplace specifically, the Sex Discrimination Act made it unlawful to discriminate on the ground of sex when offering employment, access to training and promotion, or in relation to dismissal (all of which were permissible previously). It also created a system of enforcement and review for both pieces of legislation. Crucially, it came into force on 29 December 1975, at the same time as the Equal Pay Act 1970 (which had entailed a five-year implementation period).

The EOC, similarly, came into being on 29 December 1975, with statutory powers to enforce the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act and related legislation. Based in Manchester, the first chair was Baroness Betty Lockwood and the deputy was Lady Elspeth Howe.

Nevertheless, the Act was much criticised, especially regarding enforcement. Whilst it set out important abstract principles and it was clear as to what was meant by direct discrimination, the Act’s more complex meanings and implications had to be tested: by bringing cases to industrial tribunals and thus through active lawyering. The EOC (amongst others) played an important role in this regard by giving assistance to cases it deemed of strategic importance.

The act made no reference to sexual harassment or harassment on the ground of sex. This was an important issue, around which test cases were brought in the 1980s: to establish that harassment was a form of ‘discrimination’ under the 1975 Act. There were also a number of exceptions in the original Act. For example, it allowed ‘exception where sex is a genuine occupational qualification’, such as ‘dramatic performances’ or ‘to preserve decency or privacy’ (s. 7). The armed forces were excluded altogether (s. 85 (4)) until 1994 when this was amended to refer to exclusion on the grounds of ‘combat effectiveness’.

It is notable that separate legislation and enforcement bodies were constructed for race and sex in Great Britain in the 1970s, although shared frameworks and principles were applied across these two strands. The Gender Equalities at Work project has examined the complex relationship between the various pieces of legislation seeking to tackle inequalities in this period. This topic is explored in  ‘Intersectionality, race and the Sex Discrimination Act: The construction of equality silos.

The effectiveness of the EOC as an equalities’ body is explored further in ‘The Equal Opportunities Commission? An Achievement of its time?’.