Spotting sex discrimination at work – do you know your legal rights?

People on their way to work

Not all unfair treatment is against the law. For a discrimination claim, the treatment must be related in some way to one of the specified protected characteristics, for example: sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy or maternity. 

Discrimination can sometimes be difficult to spot. Many women experience unfair treatment at work that can make them feel isolated, victimised or left out. They perhaps don't realise that what they are being subjected to may be a form of discrimination.

Could you spot the discrimination?

The concept of equality sounds simple. It appeals to our deep-rooted sense of fairness. Unfortunately this straightforward approach may conceal a more complex reality. People may spot a lack of equality in treatment, but miss a lack of equality in opportunity.

Direct sex discrimination at work

Direct discrimination takes place when a person is treated less favourably than others because of a protected characteristic.

Sinead works in banking and she is the only woman in her team. She is refused a promotion because she has childcare commitments for her children.  Her employer appoints a male colleague to the role who is less qualified and less experienced than Sinead. 

People often feel unhappy at work and may not realise that what they are experiencing could be discrimination. In Sinead’s case, she may have been refused promotion because of her sex, which is a protected characteristic. If Sinead is being discriminated against at work because of her protected characteristic, she could be a victim of direct sex discrimination.

She would need to prove that was refused for promotion because she is a woman, rather than for some other reason.

Indirect sex discrimination at work

Indirect discrimination is where a provision, rule, policy or practice that applies to all people puts people with a protected characteristic at a particular disadvantage.

Loreen’s employer has decided to appoint a new Head of Administration. The new role requires the Head of Administration to work weekends.  This put Loreen at a disadvantage compared to her male colleagues within the admin department due to her childcare commitments on the weekends. 

This could be indirect discrimination on grounds of sex as this is a rule that applies neutrally to all employees, but is detrimental to Loreen because of her childcare commitments, which are statistically more likely to affect women.

Indirect discrimination can however be justified if the employer can show that the measure is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example, if the employer can show it is in the interests of health and safety, necessary for the requirements of the business, or necessary to make a profit, then the rule may be justified.

Bullying and harassment at work

Harassment at work can be various kinds of unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic or of a sexual nature, including unwanted attention, being bullied and singled out.

Lynne has been asked on a couple of occasions to go on a date with a colleague at work and she let her colleague know that she wasn't interested. Her colleague has since started leaving flowers on her desk. Lynne doesn't want this attention and feels embarrassed, humiliated and uncomfortable.

ACAS, who work to promote employment relations, provide examples of what can be classed as bullying and harassment. Even behaviour from a colleague like repeatedly standing too close can be harassment in the form of an unwanted sexual advance. Spreading malicious rumours, and overbearing supervision are other examples.

Becoming more difficult to make a claim

Following the introduction of employment tribunal fees, many people struggle to bring a case against their employer if they have been a victim of discrimination at work.

Digby Brown has a team of specialist employment law solicitors who can offer bespoke advice and guide you through the claims process.

Getting help

Being a victim of discrimination can not only be frustrating and upsetting, but it can seriously hinder your ability to do your job. If you feel you are being discriminated against or harassed at work, you should seek legal advice from an employment solicitor.