Legal Feminist is a collective of practising solicitors and barristers who are interested in feminist analysis of law, and legal analysis of feminism. Between us we have a wide range of specialist areas of law including in particular financial services, discrimination and data protection, as well as corporate governance, company law, corporate finance, criminal law, human rights law and public and administrative law. Our range of specialisms enables us to consider holistically the issues raised in the Consultation Paper (CP) and our collective experience enables us to comment on the practical implications of some of those issues. As a non-aligned collective of lawyers from a range of backgrounds, we do not represent any particular firm or issuer and are therefore well-placed to give candid feedback on the issues raised by the CP.
For reference to consultation document see https://www.fca.org.uk/publications/consultation-papers/cp23-20-diversity-inclusion-financial-sector-working-together-drive-change
As feminists, we welcome initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion (D&I) and we thank the FCA for its efforts to drive forward D&I initiatives. We particularly support the concept of evidence based strategies. However, the FCA’s proposals engage a range of legal issues and therefore need to be carefully considered by specialists to avoid unintended harm. Our more detailed responses to questions are set out later in this response, but in summary:
- The definitions of discriminatory practices and demographic characteristics are ambiguous and will cause confusion and so not meet the FCA’s objectives. We recommend the FCA adopt the definitions of discrimination and harassment applied in the Equality Act and the definition of bullying applied by ACAS, since these are all well understood and supported by a developed body of case law. The term demographic characteristics should be replaced with “protected characteristics” (with the possible addition of socio economic status) and should be defined by reference to the Equality Act.
- Subject to our comments on the definitions, we support the proposals in respect of non-financial misconduct relating to colleagues and those relating to misconduct outside the workplace.
- With regard to data collection, reporting and targets:
- The sector has not yet done enough to tackle the cultural issues faced by women and the barriers which lead to women leaving the sector and which hold back their progression to senior roles. Firms need to better leverage data to analyse these issues, develop strategies to address them and measure progress.
- We support the setting of aspirational targets and reporting against them, as a means of holding firms to account publicly. We note the progress made in respect of women and ethnic minority membership of boards as a result of board level initiatives and support the greater extension of this to senior leadership.
- More should be done to address the impact of pregnancy, maternity leave and caring responsibilities on women’s careers. Firms should therefore track outcomes for women following pregnancy and maternity leave – for example through exit and promotion data, and develop specific strategies to tackle the issues and improve outcomes.
- That said, lack of promotion cannot be solely blamed on pregnancy and family responsibilities. Firms should also focus attention on systemic biases that persist regardless of family responsibility including by analysing data on evaluations, progression, allocation of opportunities and exit data.
- Collection of data on sex (rather than gender) should be mandatory to reflect the protected characteristic in the Equality Act and so minimise data protection issues. This will better facilitate use of the positive action provisions of the Equality Act and therefore enhance achievement of the FCA’s objectives. It will also align with the mandatory disclosure regime for listed companies under the Companies Act.
- Allowing organisations to choose to report on gender instead of sex constitutes indirect discrimination since it places those with gender critical beliefs at a particular disadvantage and is not objectively justified. As such, the FCA would be inducing a breach of the Equality Act. We have suggested a more proportionate approach in our comments below.
- Allowing organisations to choose between sex and gender will also lead to inconsistency and poor quality data. Encouraging collection of data on gender is therefore inconsistent with the FCA’s Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) set out in the Equality Act 2010.
We have answered questions 4, 5, 7 8 and 10 to 17 of the CP below.
Q4: To what extent do you agree with our definitions of the terms specified?
We disagree with the definition of discriminatory practices.
In order to achieve the FCA’s objectives, it is essential that key definitions are clearly defined in order to ensure transparency, consistency and fairness of application. Since discrimination and harassment can be unintentional and under the proposals there are potential career ending consequences if an individual is found responsible for discriminatory practices, ambiguity must be avoided.
The definition of the term “Discriminatory Practices” includes discrimination, harassment or victimisation due to “demographic characteristics”. However “demographic characteristics” is not defined and it is unclear what is meant by this phrase. In particular, it is unclear whether it includes all the protected characteristics in the Equality Act such as religion and belief, marriage and civil partnership, and what additional characteristics are included.
Our recommendation is that:
- Either the term demographic characteristics is replaced with “protected characteristics” by reference to the Equality Act; or
- If the intention is to include socio economic status, to define demographic characteristic as meaning “a protected characteristic pursuant to the Equality Act or socio economic status”.
Q5: To what extent do you agree with our proposals to expand the coverage of non-financial misconduct in FIT, COCON and COND?
We disagree with the proposed language in FIT and COCON including the proposed definition of harassment.
We agree that non-financial misconduct should be addressed in FIT COCON and COND and recognise the need for the FCA to effectively reverse the outcome in the Frensham. However we have concerns with regard to the scope of the proposed extension:
With regard to conduct outside of work:
- We agree that dishonesty outside of work is always likely to be relevant to the fit and proper assessment.
- However, we have material concerns about the proposal to include conduct outside of work that does not involve “a breach of standards that are equivalent to those required under the regulatory system“. In particular, the amendments suggest that a person may be determined to lack “moral soundness, rectitude and steady adherence to an ethical code” as a result of conduct that is “disgraceful or morally reprehensible or otherwise sufficiently serious”. Terms such as “disgraceful” and “morally reprehensible” introduce a significant degree of ambiguity. Firms are therefore likely to find it more difficult to determine whether an individual remains fit and proper or what to state in a regulatory reference. This is likely to lead to a lack of consistency which is undesirable. In that regard we would note that the UK financial services industry operates in and draws its workforce from a multi-cultural environment. Accordingly, there are likely to be cultural and other differences of view as to what is morally wrong. The FCA’s objectives can be fully met by limiting non-financial misconduct committed outside of work to situations where the conduct is reasonably judged by the employer to amount to a criminal offence (whether or not the individual is charged or convicted).
- With regard to conduct towards colleagues:
- The proposed definition of harassment goes beyond that in the Equality Act, is ambiguous, and will lead to a lack of consistency in determining whether workplace conduct amounts to a breach of the Conduct Rules. The proposed definition starts with the same language as that of the Equality Act, but goes on to cover conduct that “is unreasonable and oppressive” or “humiliates, degrades or injures” the other person. The reference to “unreasonable” conduct creates unnecessary ambiguity. This risks creating uncertainty for firms seeking to apply the definition. This is unacceptable given that a finding of harassment could end an individual’s career. The ambiguity will also lead to inconsistency between firms. We recommend that the COCON amendment adopt the Equality Act definition of harassment alone. This is a longstanding, well understood definition, with a well-established body of caselaw to assist in its interpretation.
- The Conduct Rules should also incorporate an important safeguard to interpretation in the Equality Act currently omitted from the proposed COCON amendment. Under the Equality Act harassment is unlawful if it has the proscribed effect (ie if the act in question creates a hostile etc environment) even if that effect was unintentional. However the Equality Act goes on to state that when considering if the actions have that effect, account should be taken of the other person’s perception, the circumstances, and whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect. This ensures a level of objectivity in the assessment. While we also welcome the list of general factors for assessing misconduct in relation to colleagues set out in the draft COCON 1.3 , (such as whether the conduct is repeated, its duration, degree of impact and likelihood of damage to culture, the relative seniority of those involved and whether the conduct would justify dismissal), we recommend adopting the additional language from the Equality Act in addition to the proposed general factors.
- It is our view that conduct toward colleagues should not be regarded as misconduct unless the employer reasonably considers that it amounts to harassment or victimisation within the meaning of the Equality Act and in respect of the characteristics protected by the Equality Act, or harassment within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act, or bullying within the definition provided by ACAS, or commission of a criminal offence.
With regard to the threshold Conditions, we note our concerns stated above regarding the definition of Discriminatory Practices.
Q7: To what extent do you agree with our proposals on D&I strategies?
We agree with the FCA’s proposal that firms should be required to develop evidence based strategies.
The sector needs to do more to tackle the cultural issues faced by women, the deconstruct the barriers that prevent women rising to the most senior levels, and to retain women in the sector. Firms need to better leverage data to analyse these issues, develop strategies to address them and measure progress. In this regard we note:
- Women typically are more likely than men to take time out of their careers for children, and to bear an unequal share of the burden of childcare. The sector has not done enough to understand and address the impact of pregnancy, maternity leave and caring responsibilities on women’s careers. Firms should therefore expressly track outcomes for women following pregnancy and maternity leave, and develop specific strategies to tackle the issues and improve outcomes, for example to address allocation of career developing opportunities.
- However pregnancy and maternity leave are not the sole reasons for the lack of women in senior positions. Firms should also focus attention on systemic biases that have led to this.
- Some firms have tried to address under-representation of certain groups including women and ethnic minorities through a range of initiatives such as training, policies and mentoring programmes. While these programmes can have positive benefits, they have not to date led to sufficient progress. They are often fragmented, and do not tackle the fundamental structural and cultural issues that persist. At a time when DE&I resource and funding is under material pressure, we welcome an evidence based approach that focuses on the issues facing women and other underrepresented groups, and which looks at why existing initiatives have not worked.
- We consider that firms need to investigate and understand what is happening in their organisations, at every point in the employee life cycle, in order to identify where the true challenges are, and develop a strategy to address these challenges. This would involve examining data not just on recruitment, but at every stage of decision making from intake to annual evaluation, pay and bonus, promotion, allocation of work and opportunities and through to leaver data. For example:
- Is there evidence that women are less likely to achieve the highest ratings in evaluations? Does this indicate systemic bias in the performance appraisal system?Whether there is bias in the firm’s system for allocation of developmental projects, client relationships and opportunities that are more likely to lead to promotion and higher bonus awards.
- Firms should then use this data to build their strategy to tackle inequality in allocation of work and opportunities, bias in the assessment of women and ethnic minorities, lack of transparency in promotion processes, lack of pay transparency, presenteeism and lack of recognition for the differing levels of contribution made by women and men to positive workplace behaviours.
Q8: To what extent do you agree with our proposals on targets?
We partially agree with these proposals.
We support the setting of aspirational targets and reporting against them, as a means of holding firms to account publicly. We note the progress made in respect of listed company boards as a result of initiatives to set targets for representation of women and ethnic minorities and support the greater extension of this to senior leadership.
However we qualify our response noting that:
- Firms should limit themselves to targets in respect of the main protected characteristics which are measurably under represented compared to the general population. These are likely in most organisations to be sex, ethnicity and disability. In addition, we support targets based on socio economic status.
- As noted below in response to question 10, data and targets should refer to sex not gender.
- Targets should be set by reference to context including the population from which the firm recruits.
- The FCA should state clearly how socio economic status is to be defined in the context of targets and reporting.
- Targets should remain aspirational. The recent highly publicised investigation into discrimination in recruitment at the RAF demonstrates the risk where targets are treated as akin to quotas and where inappropriate pressure is placed on individuals to meet them.
Q10: To what extent do you agree with the list of demographic characteristics we propose to include in our regulatory return?
We disagree with the proposal to make collection of sex data optional and to make maternity data optional.
- Sex is the relevant protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. Collection of data on sex should be mandatory. Gender is not a protected characteristic and does not have a recognised meaning. The conflation of sex and gender diminishes the value of the data, and has the effect of introducing self-identification of gender. This will hamper achievement of the FCA’s objectives, since one of the main reasons for lack of advancement of women is structural sexism. If data on sex is not collected, structural sexism cannot be measured and addressed.
- In providing firms with the option of reporting on the basis of gender in place of sex, the FCA is itself inducing discrimination against those with gender critical beliefs:
- Indirect discrimination occurs where a practice puts an individual and those who share their protected characteristic at a “particular disadvantage” unless this can be objectively justified.
- The gender critical belief (that sex is biological and immutable, and that gender is a concept based on the imposition of stereotypes on each sex) is a protected characteristic.
- If employers elect to collect data, set targets and strategy and report on gender rather than sex, those with gender critical beliefs will be placed in an invidious position: their alternatives will be to state something they do not believe in, ie their gender, which is unacceptable to them, not to respond at all, or to select “prefer not to say”.
- As such, they are deprived of the opportunity to have their most fundamental characteristic recorded. This places them at a particular disadvantage. Caselaw has made clear that the threshold for establishment of particular disadvantage is not in fact high. A decision to collect data on gender not sex exceeds this threshold by some considerable margin. It is more than reasonable for those with gender critical beliefs to wish to have their sex accurately recorded, not to record a gender which they don’t believe exists, and not to be placed in the invidious position where because they cannot respond to the term gender, and are not offered the chance to state their sex, meaning that one of their most fundamental protected characteristics is not recorded.
- Such a requirement cannot be objectively justified. While the aim may be to accommodate those trans-identifying colleagues who wish to record their gender, the replacement of sex with gender is not a proportionate way of achieving that aim. It is deeply offensive to those with gender critical beliefs, and particularly to women. It clearly cannot under any circumstances be appropriate to entirely erase one protected characteristic – sex – in the interests of accommodating. The more proportionate approach would be to collect data based on sex recorded at birth, combined with a supplementary optional question as to whether the individual considers they have a gender identity that differs from their sex recorded at birth. This would also have the benefit of ensuring that the employer had accurate data on both issues.
- Accordingly, any requirement on or by firms to ask individuals to identify their “gender” is therefore discriminatory.
- We also envisage that many of those holding orthodox religious views would similarly disbelieve in innate gender overwriting sex and so would similarly be subject to discrimination.
- Encouraging discrimination is inconsistent with the PSED.
- Following a legal challenge to the ONS, the UK Census collects data on sex. This approach has been followed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The SRA’s approach is to collect data on sex, with three options: male, female and prefer not to say. This is followed by a question to accommodate those hold the belief that they have a gender identity (by asking if they consider they have a gender identity different to their sex as registered at birth). This approach enables accurate collection of data on sex and would better achieve the FCA’s objective.
- As part of their diversity strategies, firms should be encouraged to use the positive action provisions in sections 158 and 159 of the Equality Act. Section 158 for example, facilitates initiatives such as sponsorship and mentoring programmes, diverse interview panels, diverse long lists, specialist open days and outreach programmes etc. Section 159 enables a decision to appoint an individual from an underrepresented group if certain stringent conditions are met. As Government and EHRC guidance makes clear, reliance on these provisions is dependent on having data. Accordingly, the ability to apply these provisions in respect of initiatives focused on women is dependent on having good quality data in respect of the protected characteristic of sex. Data based on “gender” would not meet this requirement.
- Under GDPR there is a clear legal basis for collecting data on sex, whereas that is not the case for “gender” which is arguably special category data.
- The FCA is subject to the PSED under the Equality Act meaning that it must have ‘due regard’ to the need to:
- eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under [the EqA]
- advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not share it and,
- foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not share it.
- Application of the PSED must be related to the protected characteristics in the Equality Act. Mandatory collection of data on sex would ensure that regulators are able to comply with the PSED:
- Policy making that seeks to conflate two protected characteristics (sex and gender reassignment) or introduce the concept of gender, which is not a protected characteristic, would fail to advance equality of opportunity between those who share one of those protected characteristics and those that do not. It would therefore be a breach of the FCA’s duties under the PSED to implement proposals to replace sex with gender, or treat sex as not mandatory.
- In this regard we note that the Government has abandoned the use of the term “BAME” because (a) aggregation of data for different ethnic groups masks differences in outcome, and (b) because of the offence caused to groups who found themselves grouped together notwithstanding their very different experiences. By analogy, use of the term gender will aggregate the women and those born male who identify as trans, notwithstanding that they will have different experiences, particularly those who identify after their careers have been established. It has also been established that men and women have different risk taking behaviours. It is very likely that from a risk perspective, the risk taking behaviour of those born male is more likely to align with their birth sex. Further, and as noted above, aggregation is offensive to those with gender critical beliefs.
- We also consider that firms should collect data on pregnancy and maternity. Pregnancy and maternity are major contributors to women leaving the sector, to the reduction in opportunities, and lack of promotion to more senior roles. The impact of pregnancy on women’s careers is far greater than the impact that becoming a parent or taking paternity leave has on fathers. In fact there is some evidence that men’s careers take off after fatherhood. While pregnancy and maternity leave are for a limited time period, firms could still measure and track progress for women on return from maternity leave – for example how long do they stay, are they overrepresented in redundancy exits, are they under-represented on promotion, and what is the impact on bonus. While the data sets may be relatively small, data protection concerns could be addressed by requiring firms to collect and report such data to the FCA, but not publish it.
- We reject the suggestion that data on parental responsibilities is a more suitable long-term metric than pregnancy and maternity data. There is clear evidence that motherhood has a detrimental impact on women’s careers, and that parental responsibility does not affect men’s careers in the same way. Our view is that firms should collect and report data on pregnancy and maternity, and that data on parental responsibilities should be sub divided by sex.
Q11: To what extent do you agree that reporting should be mandatory for some demographic characteristics and voluntary for others?
We agree that in principle reporting of some characteristics should be mandatory and others voluntary:
- We consider that the mandatory requirements should be limited to key demographic characteristics.
- Reporting on parental responsibility should be subdivided by sex, reflecting that typically the impact of parental responsibility on careers differs between men and women. Indeed there is some evidence not only that women’s careers are harmed by having children, the career and pay prospects of men improve.
Q12: Do you think reporting should instead be mandatory for all demographic characteristics?
No. We consider that reporting (and resources) should focus on key characteristics, including sex, ethnicity and disability.
Q13: To what extent do you agree with the list of inclusion questions we propose to include in our regulatory return?
We agree save that the reference to feeling insulted or badly treated because of personal characteristics should be restricted to protected characteristics.
Q14: To what extent do you agree with our proposals on disclosure?
We agree save that disclosure should relate to sex, not gender.
Q15: To what extent do you agree that disclosure should be mandatory for some demographic characteristics and voluntary for others?
Disclosure of data in respect of sex, ethnicity and disability should be mandatory since these groups are clearly under-represented in comparison to the UK population,
Q16: Do you think disclosure should instead be mandatory for all demographic characteristics?
No – see our response to question 15. The experience of Legal Feminist is that reporting on multiple characteristics is likely to lead to a diversion of resources away from the key priority areas, as firms would need to spend time and resource on a campaign to build up reporting of data.
Q17: To what extent do you agree that a lack of D&I should be treated as a non-financial risk and addressed accordingly through a firm’s governance structures?