Laura McManus: Advancing women’s rights in Northern Ireland workplaces

Laura McManus: Advancing women's rights in Northern Ireland workplaces

Laura McManus

Eversheds Sutherland lawyer Laura McManus examines women’s rights in the workplace as Northern Ireland falls behind neighbouring jurisdictions.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in Northern Ireland, working women, and working families, continue to enjoy less rights in the workplace than their counterparts in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

According to PwC’s annual Women in Work Index published just last week, the gender pay gap has widened in 2021 and 2022, and the UK as a whole reports a pay gap of an average of 14.5 per cent.

Currently, there is no requirement for companies in Northern Ireland to undertake gender pay gap reporting and information published on the gender pay gap in Northern Ireland is published by companies on a voluntary basis, most likely those who are operating through GB and NI.

Northern Ireland’s gender pay gap reporting regulations are contained within the draft Employment Act 2016 which was not enacted due to the non-functioning Assembly. Now that the Assembly is back up and running, it is hoped the draft Employment Act will be enacted into law, although without any fixed date for implementation, it is still a matter of ‘watch this space’.

However, if, but most likely when the Employment Act 2016 is enacted, this will not significantly narrow or resolve the gap of employment rights for women, and families, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

There are still many areas of divergence, such as flexible working now being a ‘day one’ right to request in GB, whereas employees in NI must have 26 weeks’ service prior to making the request and can only make one request per year.

Recently published studies highlight the importance of flexible working in retaining working mothers in employment. As women continue to undertake the lion’s share of caring responsibilities, flexible working (such as flexible start and finish times, condensed hours or reduced hours) are key tools which employers can use to retain women in the workplace.

Equally it cannot be forgotten that flexible working can and should be available to men undertaking caring responsibilities. By supporting men to blend their home and work responsibilities, employers are supporting working families.

One area in which employees in Northern Ireland will have more rights than their counterparts in GB and Republic of Ireland will be the entitlement to statutory leave in the case of a miscarriage. The regulations are to come into force no later than 2026 and will entitle employees to a period of leave following a miscarriage.

The specifics of the regulations have not yet been published, but it is very likely they will provide leave similar to other statutory rights such as parental bereavement leave (two weeks) and parental bereavement pay. Leave such as this is essential for supporting employees who are navigating the grief and pain following a miscarriage.

As we mark International Women’s Day, it is crucial to recognise that supporting and advocating for woman can also be achieved through advocating for men and families. True gender equality in the workplace can be achieved by ensuring we all share the same rights, opportunities, pressures, and, perhaps with an extra strong coffee, we can even share the school run!

  • Laura McManus is an associate in the employment and immigration team at Eversheds Sutherland Belfast.
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