Sex discrimination and equal pay

Discrimination can be direct, indirect, deliberate or accidental. If you feel you are being discriminated against at work because of your sex, because you are married or in a civil partnership, or because of your gender reassignment, it is unlawful.

Sex discrimination explained

Equal opportunity laws aim to create a 'level playing field' so that people are employed, paid, trained and promoted only because of their skills, abilities and how they do their job.

It's unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you because:

  • of your sex
  • because you are married or a civil partner
  • you have gone through, are going through or intend to go through, gender reassignment, (this means someone, who changes their sex under medical supervision)

Sex discrimination laws cover almost all workers (men and women) and all types of organisations in the UK. It covers:

  • recruitment
  • employment terms and conditions
  • pay and benefits
  • status
  • training
  • promotion and transfer opportunities
  • redundancy
  • dismissal

Equal pay

It is unlawful for employers to discriminate between men and women in terms of their pay and conditions where they are doing either:

  • the same or similar work (like work)
  • work rated as equivalent in a job evaluation study by the employer
  • work of equal value

Genuine occupational qualifications

In some cases, a job can be offered to someone of a particular sex, because of what is called a 'genuine occupational qualification'. Examples could include:

  • some jobs in single-sex schools
  • jobs in some welfare services
  • acting jobs that need a man or a woman

Different types of discrimination

There are four types of discrimination:

  • direct discrimination - treating you differently because of your sex, because you are married or because of your gender reassignment
  • indirect discrimination - putting you at a disadvantage because of certain working practices or rules
  • harassment - behaving in an offensive manner, or encouraging or allowing other people to do so
  • victimisation - treating you unfairly for making a complaint about discrimination

Employers who don't stop sex and gender discrimination by their employees may themselves be discriminating unlawfully.

Some examples of discrimination

  • direct discrimination - paying one gender more than the other for doing the same job, promoting someone because they are single instead of an equally qualified person, or sacking a woman because she says she is pregnant or might start a family
  • indirect discrimination - setting a minimum height, which might discriminate against most women, or an employer's refusal to recruit part-time workers without good reason
  • harassment - making sexual remarks or gestures, allowing displays or distribution of sexually explicit material, or giving someone a potentially offensive nickname because of their gender
  • victimisation - preventing you from going on training courses, taking unfair disciplinary action against you, or excluding you from company social events
  • Introduction to discrimination
  • Parental leave

Positive action

In some circumstances, an employer may encourage or offer support specifically to men or women.

For example, an employer who has no female managers might offer some training in management skills only to women or encourage them to apply for management posts.

Positive action applies only to training and encouragement to apply for posts. When it comes to choosing who is to get a post the employer must consider all candidates on their suitability alone.

What to do if you are discriminated against

If you think that you’re suffering sex discrimination at work, you should talk to your employer, explaining what you see as discrimination. If necessary, put your complaint in writing. An employee representative, like a trades union official, may be able to help you. Your employer may have an equal opportunities policy - ask to see it.

If this doesn’t help, you may need to make a complaint using your employer’s grievance procedure. You shouldn't be victimised for making a complaint, as this would count as discrimination.

If you’re still unhappy, you can apply to an Industrial Tribunal – you’ll need to do this within three months of the discrimination taking place or within six months if it is about unequal pay. Tribunals can award compensation for unlawful sex discrimination.

Where you can get help

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