Employers must overcome fear of using positive action

4 March 2019

More employers need to recognise the benefits of using positive action to increase the number of female, disabled and ethnic minority apprentices in Britain and help address the barriers these groups face in wider employment, according to the national equality body.

new report published today at the start of National Apprenticeship Week by the Equality and Human Rights Commission with the University of Chester and the Young Women’s Trust has found that few employers are making use of the power given to them in 2010 under the Equality Act to tackle disadvantage and under-representation experienced by certain groups. Whilst the study found some examples of companies encouraging female apprentices, there were far fewer schemes or positive action measures relating to race and disability.

This is despite the fact that almost 90% of apprentices in England aged 16-24 are white. Whilst there are similar numbers of female and male apprentices in England, female apprentices remain significantly under-represented in better paid industries and over-represented in poorer paid sectors such as early year care.

This call for greater use of positive action follows a ruling last week which found Cheshire Police guilty of discriminating against a white, heterosexual male because it used positive action in an unlawful way.

The research identified a number of reasons for the limited use of positive action including a lack of awareness among employers about their ability to take positive action, a lack of confidence to implement effective measures and a fear of legal liability and straying into positive discrimination.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “We need a level playing field in the workplace for women, for disabled people and for ethnic minorities. If we can do this at the point of entry to the labour market, we will take giant steps towards closing pay gaps and eliminate once and for all the outdated idea that certain kinds of people ought to be doing certain kinds of jobs. Apprenticeships offer a great opportunity to create opportunities for individuals by offering paid employment, on-the-job training and qualifications.

“Employers need to take a confident and proactive approach if they are really going to make a difference here. Too often they are hesitant about using positive action because they’re worried about inadvertently discriminating against others. Unfortunately employers such as Cheshire Police falling foul of the law due to a lack of understanding add to this fear. In reality, when used correctly, positive action is a powerful way for employers to address skills shortages and foster inclusive and diverse working environments that allow everyone to reach their full potential.” 

Young Women’s Trust Chief Executive Dr Carole Easton OBE said: “Women continue to be shut out of key parts of the economy due to outdated gender stereotypes and a lack of support. Employers can do far more to take action within current legislation to create a level playing field, which is why there needs to be a greater awareness and understanding of how measures such as positive action can make a difference and enable them to recruit the best people they can.” 

Professor Chantal Davies at the University of Chester said: “Used appropriately and robustly, positive action can provide a vitally effective means of tackling disadvantage and underrepresentation, but unfortunately, there is little practical evaluation of the use of positive action in apprenticeships or in wider employment.

There are many examples of employers that have demonstrated a commitment to utilising the positive action measures that are permitted in relation to apprenticeships and beyond, in those sectors in which minority groups and women are under-represented. However, what we found in the roundtable discussion which helped inform this report, is that employers lack awareness and/ or confidence to implement effective positive action measures. Through this report, and the work I’m carrying out with the Young Women’s Trust, we are seeking to address this knowledge (and confidence) deficit on the use of positive action in relation to apprenticeships and underrepresented groups.”

The EHRC is recommending that employers monitor recruitment, retention and progression by ethnicity, disability and gender to identify disadvantages faced by particular groups and tackle these by taking both:

  • general positive action such as reserving places for a protected group on training courses or providing mentoring for a particular group;
  • positive action in recruitment and promotion by using the ‘tie-break’ provision to appoint an individual from a protected group over another individual where that group is under-represented or at a disadvantage and the candidates are equally qualified.

It is also calling for the Government to hold apprenticeship providers to account by requiring organisations they fund to set and meet targets for improved participation by under-represented groups and to use public procurement to promote greater use of positive action.

The full report is available on the EHRC’s website. 

Notes to editors

The findings of the report and its implications for employees, employers and sector bodies will also be discussed during a Positive Action at Work conference on 13 March organised by the University of Chester and the Young Women’s Trust.