When you can provide a separate or single-sex service

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • organisations or people providing a service only to one sex
  • organisations or people providing a service separately to each sex
  • organisations or people providing a service differently to people of each sex

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • England flag icon

      England

    • |
    • Scotland flag icon

      Scotland

    • |
    • Wales flag icon

      Wales

The Equality Act allows you to provide separate-sex services (para 26) and single-sex services (para 27).

Separate-sex services

A separate-sex service is one which is provided to both sexes, but separately or differently.

You can only provide a separate-sex service if a joint service would be less effective and providing that separate service is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example, a legitimate aim could be the health and safety of others. You must then show that your action is a proportionate way to achieve that aim. This requires that you balance the impact on all service users of providing services separately.

For example, a charity provides separate homeless hostels for men and women.

The Equality Act also allows a service provider to provide separate services in a different way for each sex. You can only provide a separate service differently if first, a joint service for people of both sexes would be less effective, and second, the extent to which the service is required by one sex makes it impractical to provide the service other than separately and differently for each sex. You must then be able to show that the limited provision is a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim.

Single-sex services

If you are providing a service to one sex only (and not to the other), you must be able to meet one of the following conditions:

  1. Only people of that sex need the service.
     
  2. Providing the service jointly to both sexes would not be sufficiently effective.

Example: if women of a particular religion or belief will not use the local swimming pool at the same time as men, women-only swimming sessions could be provided as well as mainly-mixed sessions.

  1. The level of need for the services makes it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services for each sex.

Example: a women-only support unit for women who have experienced domestic or sexual violence can be set up, even if there is no parallel men-only unit because of insufficient demand.

  1. The service is provided at a hospital or other place, where users need special care, supervision or attention.

Example: single-sex wards in hospitals and nursing homes.

  1. The service is likely to be used by more than one person at the same time and a woman might reasonably object to the presence of a man (or vice versa).

Example: separate male and female changing rooms.

  1. A person might reasonably object to the service user being of the opposite sex because the service involves physical contact.

Example: sports sessions involving a high degree of physical contact or any service involving intimate personal health or hygiene.

You must also be able to show that providing the service on a single-sex basis is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Again, proportionality requires that you balance the impact on all service users of providing services only to one sex.

Points to consider

You must be able to demonstrate that providing a separate or single-sex service is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. It is therefore good practice to record the reasons why you have taken the decision to provide a separate or single-sex service, along with any supporting evidence. For example, you have chosen to provide a single-sex hospital ward because patients have told you they have legitimate concerns about staying on a mixed ward, e.g. privacy. If this is the reason for your decision, it would be good practice to support this with evidence, such as a patient survey.

Last updated: 05 May 2022

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082
Textphone: 0808 800 0084

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

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