Sex discrimination in the workplace is a widespread issue that continues to affect individuals across various industries, creating a hostile and unequal working environment. Defined as the unfair treatment of an individual or a group based on their sex, this form of discrimination significantly hampers equality, respect, and professional growth.
However, employers play a crucial role in curbing these instances by fostering a safe and inclusive workplace culture. By implementing preventative measures and establishing clear policies, employers can actively work towards eliminating workplace sex discrimination and promoting a more equitable environment for all employees.
Many workplace sex discrimination problems should and can be resolved informally by early intervention and good management. However, in complex situations or where informal steps don’t work, sooner or later any significant problem at work will need to be investigated.
Our work as independent workplace investigators helps employers to understand the full facts of a matter or incident and to allow fair, objective and informed decision-making to bring the matter to a conclusion. To learn more about how we can help your organisation in this area please book a free consultation.
What is sex discrimination?
The definition of sex discrimination refers to the unfair or unequal treatment of an individual or group based on their sex. Although present in many areas of society, sex discrimination is primarily linked to employment where it is prohibited by laws and regulations.
The sex discrimination act 1975 attempted to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status, and promote equality between men and women. This was repealed by the the sex discrimination act 1986 and eventually the Equality Act 2010 which consolidated numerous prior acts forming the basis of anti-discrimination law.
The purpose of UK sex discrimination law serves to protect those at work including employees, contractors and job applicants. It encompasses all aspects of employment, such as recruitment, terms and conditions, promotions, training, and dismissals. Additionally, the Equality Act 2010 requires employers to provide equal pay and treat men and women equally in relation to pay and terms of employment.
What is sex discrimination in the workplace?
It is unlawful to discriminate against men and women in the workplace on the grounds of their sex, which includes protection against sexual harassment and victimisation. Employers have a responsibility to do everything they can to make sure that sex discrimination in the workplace is prevented. Even though employees are personally responsible for the way they act, employers can also be held accountable by way of ‘vicarious liability’.
It is therefore essential for employers to review their policies and procedures to ensure they are not inadvertently discriminatory. This could be due to changes within the organisation which affect the workforce and the services being offered, or due to changes in law which have occurred since the policies were written.
Examples of sex discrimination in the workplace
In a workplace setting, sex discrimination could involve treating someone unfairly, such as denying them job opportunities, employee benefits or rights solely on the basis of their sex. This can include actions such as hiring/promotion bias, pay inequality, sexual harassment, or creating hostile work environments.
Here are some examples of sex discrimination in the workplace:
Indirect sex discrimination
An example of indirect sex discrimination could be stating a requirement within a job description for a certain level of physical strength or stamina that is not directly related to the role.
For instance, if a company insists that all applicants for a marketing executive position must pass a fitness test involving heavy lifting or other physical tasks, it may result in indirect discrimination against women as they might generally have less upper body strength compared to men. Though strength may not be directly relevant to the role, creating such a requirement could disproportionately exclude women from successfully applying for the position and indirectly discriminate against them.
Direct sex discrimination
Direct sex discrimination could be a company deciding to pay male employees a higher salary than female employees for the same job role and level of experience.
An example of victimisation is when a female employee is subjected to negative treatment or adverse actions by her employer or colleagues after filing a complaint about sexual harassment.
For instance, if Amy reports a male co-worker for making inappropriate comments and advances towards her, and instead of addressing her complaint, the employer starts spreading rumours about Amy’s personal life, painting her as promiscuous or unstable, it would be considered victimisation. This type of behaviour aims to intimidate, harm, or retaliate against Amy for speaking up against sexual harassment.
Such victimisation not only perpetuates a hostile work environment for Amy but also sends a message to other female employees that they may face similar consequences if they report any form of sexual harassment. By engaging in victimisation, the employer is further discriminating against Amy based on her sex, denying her a safe and equal working environment and re-victimising her.
A female employee, Sarah, works in a male-dominated company. She consistently receives inappropriate comments and gestures from her male colleagues that she finds offensive and disrespectful. They often make suggestive jokes, use derogatory language, and engage in unwelcome physical contact, such as touching her inappropriately or invading her personal space without her consent. Sarah feels extremely uncomfortable and humiliated by these actions, which create a hostile and intimidating work environment.
Despite her repeated objections and complaints to her supervisor, no effective action is taken to address the harassment, and Sarah is adversely affected in her job performance and overall well-being. This ongoing, unwelcome behaviour based on her sex constitutes harassment and sex discrimination.
Clearly sex discrimination in the workplace in any form is unacceptable yet it continues to happen. So the question is, are employers doing enough to prevent it, and, if not, what can they do differently?
How employers can prevent sex discrimination in the workplace
In addition to monitoring policies and procedures on sex discrimination, it may also be necessary to improve the investigation skills of managers who are responsible for handling complaints. Managers should also ensure they avoid letting their own feelings or beliefs affect the outcome of a complaint, and that all complaints arising from workplace sex discrimination are investigated appropriately and thoroughly.
When managers possess strong investigation skills and handle complaints effectively, it can lead to a more harmonious and equitable work environment, benefiting both employees and the organisation as a whole.
Below are 5 reasons why managers should improve their investigation skills when it comes to handling issues arising from sex discrimination in the workplace:
- Legal compliance: Sex discrimination is unlawful and is protected by anti-discrimination laws. Managers need to ensure they are upholding these laws and regulations by properly investigating and addressing complaints.
- Creating a fair and inclusive workplace: Investigating complaints thoroughly and addressing any instances of sex discrimination helps to foster a fair and inclusive work environment. By taking complaints seriously and addressing them appropriately, managers can enhance employee morale, satisfaction, and productivity.
- Preventing legal repercussions: Inadequately handled complaints involving sex discrimination can have serious legal consequences for both the organisation and the individuals involved. Managers who are well-versed in investigation techniques can minimise the risk of an employment tribunal and reputational damage associated with such complaints.
- Protecting employees: A well-conducted investigation can help identify and address patterns of harassment or discrimination, preventing further harm to individuals within the workplace.
- Demonstrating commitment to equality: Managers who actively work to improve their ability to handle cases of sex discrimination demonstrate their commitment to equality and non-discrimination. This, in turn, can enhance the organisation’s reputation as an employer of choice that values diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
The impact of sex discrimination in the workplace is not just on the individual, but the organisation itself. Damage to the reputation of an organisation is costly and difficult to recover. So it is essential to ensure your organisation is on top of its policies and procedures to prevent sex discrimination as much as possible and to equip your managers with the necessary skills to adequately manage complaints.
There have been many high profile cases of sex discrimination in the workplace including this tribunal of a female underwriter who was made redundant following her maternity leave. She was subjected to sexual harassment by her boss involving lewd comments and was told to ‘shut up’ during a meeting. When she later announced that she was pregnant, her boss sent emails to HR to explore the boundaries of corporate policy with a view to making her redundant.
Being placed at risk of redundancy was held to be an act of direct sex discrimination as the company realised it could do without a junior underwriter but only reached that decision because she was on maternity leave.
There was also a case at a Californian golf club which reported gradually escalating sexual harassment of four female employees by a senior chef. Instead of dealing with the complaint effectively, the HR department only demoted the chef which resulted in the women having to continue working with them and being victimised as a result. This culminated in lawsuits being filed which will clearly have a huge impact on the resort’s reputation.
If you need help in this area, Verita has extensive experience of carrying out governance reviews and advising organisations in practical ways to improve structures and processes. We also provide a workplace investigations training course which helps employers effectively investigate and learn from complaints, leading to a more positive culture.