International approaches to advance equality: insights from six countries

International research publication including insight from six countries on ways to advance equality.

Section 1: Introduction


We are Leading Kind Ltd, and we were commissioned by Scottish Government to conduct research to further inform policy decisions regarding Scottish Government’s current review of The Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (SSDs).

Our research examines approaches promoting equality through legislative duties in six selected countries located in three continents.

Report Structure

We have set this report out in five sections.

In this section we provide a brief overview of the scope of the work and an overview of the methods used before providing a summary of our findings.

In Section 2 we set out our findings from each of the countries included in our review.

In Section 3 we present the main themes emerging that are likely to inform the review of the SSDs.

In Section 4 we provide an overview of our findings against the key themes of the consultation about the review of the SSDs. And in Section 5 we provide our conclusion.


We reviewed countries ranked high on international equality indexes to identify similarities with the SSDs and the consultation themes relevant to the current review by Scottish Government of the SSDs.

We provided Scottish Government with a list of potential countries for consideration. These are detailed in Annex A. The final agreed countries for consideration were Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, and Wales. All six met the following criteria:

  • Availability of adequate information and research beyond published legal frameworks.
  • Evidence of impact.
  • Legislative frameworks with a focus comparable to the current Scottish Specific Duties (SSDs) and/or the themes considered in the Scottish Government consultation regarding the review of these, conducted between 13th December 2021 and 11th April 2022.

Research Methodology

We used a three-phase, multi-method approach to collect quantitative and qualitative data to answer the following research questions:

Research Questions:

  • What are the key similarities and differences with Scotland’s legislative frameworks (regarding the promotion of equality) in the chosen countries?
  • What is the evidence of the effectiveness of the equality-related legislative frameworks in these countries?
  • How is evidence of impact published and measured?
  • Are there areas of learning relevant to the Scottish Government’s current review of the effectiveness of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) regime, with a focus on the effectiveness of the SSDs?

We have provided an overview of the methods used in Annex B, with additional information relevant to our methodology in Annexes C, D & E. In Annex B we highlight that the scope of our research is limited to the legislative frameworks about equality, and associated literature of the six countries selected for this review[1].

Summary of Findings

Each country included in the review has a legal equality framework that shares similarities with the SSDs and the requirements of the Equality Act (2010), including reporting requirements, data collection and use, and mechanisms for scrutiny.

Data Insights

Each of the reviewed countries specifies protected characteristics (such as age, disability, or sex which have special legal protections from discrimination, victimisation etc.) within relevant legislation. There is a shared emphasis on discrimination protection. The description of characteristics varies from country to country[2]. However, our discussions with representatives of the organisations we contacted during phase 3 highlight a perceived need for guidance on how to support the interpretation of data on the experiences of people with protected characteristics with greater nuance.

For instance, Canada's equalities guidance emphasises protection for minoritised immigrant populations in addition to the protected characteristic of ‘race or ethnicity’. During our interviews we were advised that decision-making by policymakers could be enhanced if there was improved guidance about the needs of different groups, such as immigrants, within BAME populations. Interviewees reported that the absence of guidance hinders the ability of decision-makers and policymakers to accurately assess the unique challenges and needs faced by individuals within these communities.

During our interviews we were advised that decision-making by policymakers could be enhanced if they had access to meaningful evidence about the needs of specific communities within protected characteristic groups.

Other defining factors highlight the absence of qualitative information to provide context to the 'numbers' and the low representation of the target population in decision-making spaces. A paucity of qualitative information and insight further hinders policymakers' ability to fully understand the lived experiences and specific barriers faced within minority groups.

Scrutiny Arrangements and Equality Impact Assessment

In addition to effectively guided, nuanced data use and equality impact assessment in policymaking, effective scrutiny is a consistent theme. Most of the six countries have similar governance mechanisms to Scotland, such as independent commissions, data collection requirements, and some form of regular reporting. However, a recurring theme is that efforts to reduce inequality would be accelerated if regulators and governance boards advocated the enhancement of mechanisms for scrutiny and accountability.

Efforts to reduce inequality would be accelerated if regulators and governance boards advocated the enhancement of mechanisms for scrutiny and accountability.

Focusing on the completion of meaningful equality impacts on policy was identified as a path to ensuring attention is given to embedding action to address inequalities in the core roles of public officials and their performance management systems.

Also, it was suggested that the current systems in the six countries could be improved by putting more emphasis on defining national equality outcomes that apply to different parts of the public service and putting more emphasis on the role of regulators and funders to ask for proof of equality progress. Despite the good intentions of public authorities, applicable legislative frameworks and existing guidance, the complexities of considering the needs of diverse groups and comprehending the nuances in various settings and geographies are proving too challenging. Better guidance at a strategic level about such complexities would help policymakers consider these multiple factors impinging on need.

Our research findings provide additional support for Scottish Government’s proposal to establish priority equality outcomes so that listed authorities benefit from clear direction and a robust evidence base.

Belgium, for example, has robust and long-standing frameworks for 'Regulatory Impact Assessment' (RIA). Beginning in 1998 with a concentration on enhancing policymaking efficiencies, the process has evolved since 2013 to include a specific emphasis on gender equality. The Administrative Simplification Agency, an independent agency attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, supervises impact assessment activity, and collaborates with a variety of ministries. The Office of the Prime Minister’s Impact Assessment Committee (IAC) evaluates the quality of the RIAs content. Officials must complete an impact assessment light form. The RIA must be presented to the Council of Ministers, as per Article 3 of the law on gender mainstreaming. Like the requirements in Scotland regarding equality impact assessments for policy and practice, in Belgium, an RIA is required for all new laws (with exceptions for exigent national security requirements).

Despite the legislative framework and scrutiny architecture in place, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports[3] that the process of RIA in Belgium is often conducted too late in the decision-making process. This echoes experiences reported from the other countries as well as the feedback contained in the responses to the consultation on the review of the SSDs.

In addition, the OECD report states that the quality of RIAs in Belgium varies, in part because IAC advice is not required.

Our findings suggest that there is scope in the Scottish context for regulators and funders to enhance their scrutiny of performance against equality outcomes.

Pay Gap Reporting

From our review of legislative instruments and guidance documents we discovered that the focus on pay gap reporting (reporting on gaps in pay between different groups of people) varies among the six countries. However, from our interviews and our review of the literature we found that consistency of approach to calculations supported by enhanced guidance, setting national sector-specific outcomes, and scrutiny of pay gap data by independent oversight bodies, is welcomed by organisations subject to pay gap reporting requirements.

We found that the combination of clear guidance, direction, and scrutiny, supports reliable comparisons and evidence of the impact, or lack thereof, of efforts to reduce identified pay gaps.

These pay gaps are indicative of wider inequality issues such as occupational segregation. This makes tackling such gaps of critical importance.

In South Africa the recently amended Employment Equity Act (EEA) allows for a closer examination of the Gender Pay Gap by sector and alignment with numerical targets set by the Minister for Employment Equity. This expands upon existing legislation that focuses on the demographic representation of historically disadvantaged groups at all occupational levels based on ethnicity, sex, and disability (among other potential indicators of exclusion). Apart from South Africa, the predominant focus of the other nations, including Scotland, is on gender pay gap reporting, meaning reporting on pay gaps between men and women. However, there is a growing recognition of the need to broaden the scope of pay gap reporting beyond the protected characteristic of sex, with a focus on race and disability. There is still work to be done to assist organisations in adopting a more nuanced and considered approach to intersectional analysis of pay disparity reporting. Our review reveals that the majority of pay disparity reports continue to treat sex, race, and disability as distinct, unrelated elements whereas, we know these characteristics intersect, and can compound disadvantage, with minority ethnic women, for example, particularly disadvantaged in the labour market.

We found that the requirement to disclose pay gap data appears to be a key catalyst for change, with evidence from our review indicating that progress is slower where there is no active scrutiny.

As an example, both Sweden and South Africa compel organisations subject to pay gap reporting requirements to produce reports. These are not made public. However, in Sweden it is a requirement for the reports to be produced in collaboration with employees and for arrangements to be put in place for internal scrutiny. This requirement for internal scrutiny is not in place in South Africa. In our interviews we found that the absence of scrutiny did mean that there was a perception that action to address pay gaps would not be prioritised. This echoes experiences elsewhere where there has been more focus, driven by public policy, on ensuring equality in particular sectors. For example, in Belgium, the overall pay gap in favour of men is 5%. However, the public sector pay gap for 2021 is reported to be 1.1% in comparison to the private sector pay gap of 8.1%[4]. This suggests that the increased focus on action to address under-representation of women in public life and increased focus on equality across public sector functions is having an impact on pay gaps.

Inclusive Communications

Much of the legislation reviewed focuses on the disability related accessibility of digital communications and general communications from public authorities, with an emphasis on ensuring that, if not digital and accessible, communications are available in appropriate formats. In addition to a focus on accessible communications, we also identified country specific nuances related to the overarching theme of inclusive communications.

Belgium mandates gender-neutral job classifications, which, despite being more closely aligned with efforts to advance gender equality and address pay gaps, illustrates how inclusive communications can challenge gender stereotypes and potentially increase participation in education and influence career choices.

In Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, aspects of equal rights legislation safeguard the historical context and needs of indigenous groups. Consequently, cultural sensitivity is a crucial aspect of promoting inclusive communications within the framework of equality laws in these nations. These legal frameworks acknowledge the importance of creating communication materials that are respectful, inclusive, and representative of the various cultural groups coexisting within their borders.



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