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How Can Law Students Tackle Discrimination?

On the 10th of December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a revolutionary document that recognized the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Since then, we have seen the civil rights movement in the USA, second-wave feminism which fought for equal rights for women, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. So if you're a law student determined to carry on this grand humanitarian project, here are five things you need to know about the ongoing fight against discrimination.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
How Can Law Students Tackle Discrimination?

Start a real conversation

If we are ever going to tackle discrimination and equality, the first thing we need to do is have sensible conversations that balance the more emotive aspects of the issue with an objective approach to the problem. The gender pay gap is the perfect example. It's clear that men earn more than women, but the real question is why? Is every male CEO a raging sexist who believes women should earn less for doing the same job as men or is the reality of the situation more nuanced? For example, differences in the amount of part-time and full-time work account for more than half of the gender pay gap. In other words, many women, especially among the most well-educated, tend to work fewer hours as they try to balance their careers with raising a young family.

The Scandinavian countries have made huge progress in reducing the gender pay gap, largely due to policies that give women the same opportunities to earn as much as men. These include more flexible working hours and extending paid maternity leave to new fathers, meaning women are less likely to take longer career breaks or quit their jobs. Sweden has the most generous parental leave policy in the world -- parents are eligible to share 480 days paid leave following the arrival of a new child. Moreover, students wanting to study law in Norway and Iceland can make use of heavily subsidized childcare provisions to encourage more young mothers back into the workplace.

An exception to the rule

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are contracts that prevent staff or ex-staff from revealing sensitive information about a company or organization. They help businesses protect their commercial interests and make sure confidential information doesn't go public. NDAs play an important role in ensuring fair business practice and can even help governments keep their citizens safe. But as the arbitration service Acas recently highlighted, NDAs have been used to gag whistleblowers and prevent people from reporting sexual discrimination or harassment. In fact, movie producer Harvey Weinstein used NDAs for over 20 years to silence many of his victims, while singer R. Kelly was also alleged to have forced women into signing similar agreements after he was accused of sexual misconduct.

It's worth pointing out that breaking an NDA is not a crime. NDAs are civil agreements. However, anyone who violates the terms of the contract faces the threat of litigation and could be forced to pay financial damages and any related court costs. And given that the majority of people don't have the resources to fight multi-millionaire executives, staying silent is usually the only option. As such, Acas is calling for widespread changes in NDAs, including exemptions on reporting discrimination and disclosing a future act of discrimination or harassment. It also argues employees should have a fair amount of time to consider signing an NDA and the right to consult a lawyer or trade union representative.

Former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Bloomberg, is already on board with the proposed changes. His company has released three women from NDAs concerning alleged offensive comments made by Mr Bloomberg. He is also proposing to shelve NDAs when it comes to resolving any sexual harassment cases. He said, "I recognize that NDAs, particularly when they are used in the context of sexual harassment and sexual assault, promote a culture of silence in the workplace and contribute to a culture of women not feeling safe or supported."

Age is only a number

According to a report by the nonprofit think tank Urban Institute, more than half of workers who start their 50s in a stable and well-paid profession are made redundant by the time they reach 65. Worryingly, only 10% can find a job with a similar remuneration package, while many continue to struggle financially for the rest of their lives.

While age discrimination is illegal in many countries, older workers are sometimes deterred from applying for new positions, often because of the language employers use when advertising jobs. It's difficult to prove whether this is intentional or not. But it’s fair to say a more mature job seeker would think twice for applying to a company that was looking for a "lean and agile digital native." Similarly, companies can deter older applicants by promoting a certain type of workplace culture, such as, "We’re a close-knit team of energetic professionals who party almost as hard as we work!"

Age discrimination works both ways. Younger workers may feel belittled when senior members of staff don't take their ideas seriously or when they're passed over by promotion for someone with more 'experience' but less technical ability. Other forms of discrimination are much more direct. In the UK, 22-year-old Brooke Shanks was awarded over £3,000 in damages after her former employers demoted her from a manager position because she was 'too young for the job.'

Class is still a factor

Social class was once a distinct hierarchical structure consisting of the upper, middle, and working classes. You could tell what class a person belonged by a set of key indicators, such as where they were born, how they spoke, and how they dressed. Today, class distinctions are less obvious and far more fluid. But dig a little below the surface, and it seems they still play a crucial role in how we look at the world and each other. Moreover, it also defines the kind of opportunities available to you. For example, 20 of UK's Prime Ministers were educated at Eton, while 13 more attended other exclusive (and costly) private schools, including Harrow and Westminister school. Today, two-thirds of Boris Johnson's cabinet were privately educated.

Students from less affluent backgrounds often miss out on unpaid internships that can kickstart careers in media and politics because they can't afford to work for free straight out of university. What's more, many of the most sought after (and potentially well-paid) jobs are often located in expensive cities like New York, London, or Geneva. Again, this is another barrier to entry for young people from working and lower-middle-class backgrounds. In other words, they may have the same talent and potential as the people who land the top jobs, but they never get a chance to prove it.

Virtual discrimination

AI can already do some pretty amazing things. However, it hasn't quite picked up on the subtlety of human communication, and this inability to decode the nuance means there's an increased chance of discrimination against certain groups. Researchers from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence found AI software designed to flag offensive tweets was more likely to target African-Americans. They showed how the AI was unable to define things like intent or cultural difference in speech or register.

Earlier this month, a Dutch court outlawed the use of AI to detect welfare fraud cases. The System Risk Indicator program collates data from 17 different sources, including tax records, vehicle registrations, and land registries, to pinpoint potential fraud cases. But regulators discovered the AI system was not investigating all welfare applications. Instead, it disproportionately flagged applicants from the most impoverished communities, which are primarily made up of immigrants from Muslim countries.

There's still a long way to go in the fight against discrimination. As well as protecting the hard-won civil liberties of the past, we must also rise to the challenges posed by an ever-changing cultural and economic landscape. But whatever hurdles come our way, we should always remember what we're working towards, which is a world where "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

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Human Rights Law Studies
Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.

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