Sex discrimination: your rights at work

New law in force

The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010. Some of the information on this page may be out of date.

Women and men, including transsexual people, have the right not to be discriminated against at work because of their sex. This section gives information about this right from the worker’s point of view.

What is sex discrimination at work?

The law recognises four forms of discrimination:

  • direct discrimination
  • harassment
  • indirect discrimination
  • victimisation.

Direct discrimination

Direct sex discrimination is less favourable treatment of a woman than a man (or vice versa) because of their sex.

Example

An employer transfers a woman from her post against her will because she is having a relationship with a colleague. If the employer does not transfer men in the same circumstances, this transfer may be direct sex discrimination.

Example

A hospital insists that a male nurse has a chaperone when seeing patients. If a female nurse is not required to have a chaperone, this requirement may be direct sex discrimination.

Harassment

It is against the law to subject employees or vocational trainees to harassment on grounds of their sex or gender reassignment. Harassment is a form of direct discrimination.

Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour that takes place simply because someone is a woman or a man. The behaviour is done with the purpose of, or has the effect of, violating the person’s dignity, or it creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her (or him).

Example

'I am a female apprentice electrician and all my colleagues are men. I feel like even though my work is of a high standard, my boss constantly criticises me and shouts at me whereas he does not bully the men in this way. A new male apprentice has started at work and he is receiving much more one to one training and assistance. I asked for the same training which I need in order to complete my apprenticeship but my boss called me a 'stupid little girl' and said that if I couldn't do the job properly I should leave. My colleagues often play tricks on me such as putting my tools on a high shelf where they know I can't reach them. They do not behave this way towards one another.

I am now keeping a diary to record all these incidents so that I can make a complaint.'
 
In this example, the employee’s written diary could provide important evidence of a pattern of unlawful behaviour. The evidence could show that she has suffered direct sex discrimination (in access to training and being criticised where males are not). She could also show that she is being harassed on the grounds of her gender if she could show that the treatment created a humiliating and degrading work environment for her.

If you think you have experienced direct discrimination, read Using your rights for more information on how to take a case forward.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect sex discrimination occurs when an employer applies a provision, criterion or practice equally to both women and men that puts one sex at an unfair disadvantage.

Example

An employer specifies that applicants for a job must be over six feet tall, even though this would not affect the person’s ability to do the job. This would be indirect discrimination against women, since it would be harder for them to fulfil this criterion.

If you think you have experienced indirect discrimination, read Using your rights for more information on how to take a case forward.

Victimisation

Victimisation occurs when you are treated less favourably than others because you make a complaint of discrimination or support someone else to do. If you are denied promotion or training or are moved away from your usual workplace because of your involvement in a complaint of sex discrimination, this may be considered victimisation.

Claims of victimisation can also be taken to an employment tribunal. There must be clear evidence that the victimisation is due to allegations about discrimination that you made, or due to your supporting someone else's complaint.

If you think you have experienced victimisation, read Using your rights for more information on how to take a case forward.

More information

In this section you will find more information on sex discrimination as it relates to:

For information about transgender rights at work 

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