As one of nine protected characteristics, employees cannot be discriminated against on the grounds of their sex, as covered by the Equality Act 2010. Despite this legislation, it’s an issue that is still prevalent for men and women in employment around the UK.
Sexual discrimination is a complex area of HR that business owners and managers must be fully engaged with to ensure that their workforce is clear on what is considered sexual discrimination, how complaints should be dealt with and your approach to proactively managing this topic professionally, and consistently and compassionately within your workforce. Failing to do so can lead to the loss of good team members, serious compensation claims which are expensive to put right and distress for those involved.
There are many areas of potential conflict which fall under sex discrimination, including issues around pregnancy and maternity, equal pay, family-friendly working, part-time working, relationships at work, recruitment, bullying and harassment, redundancy and even dress codes. It’s important, therefore that you as an employer review your workplace policies, culture and staff understanding on this topic to reduce the chance of sexual discrimination taking place either directly or indirectly at any time or any point in an employee’s employment with you.
Read on for examples of different types of discrimination based on sex and the actions that you can take to ensure that you uphold good employment and working practices to give everyone a fair opportunity to progress regardless of their sex.
When Can Sexual Discrimination Occur?
Sex discrimination occurs when you treat people differently as a result of being a man or a woman. Regardless of how you feel about your employees individually, it is illegal to discriminate, harass or victimise someone because of or as a result of their sex at any stage in their employment including;
- when they apply for a job;
- their terms and conditions;
- part-time and flexible working arrangements;
- pay and benefits;
- training, development, promotion and appraisals;
- dismissal, redundancy and retirement.
Sexual Discrimination Occurs In A Variety Of Ways:
Employees can bring forward cases of sexual discrimination if they feel that they have been discriminated against by you, their employer directly, by another colleague in the workplace or if they have witnessed this happening to someone else. In all instances, sex discrimination cases should be fully investigated and handled sensitively and promptly.
Complaints of sexual discrimination can arise from unfair treatment based on an individual’s sex in a variety of scenarios including;
- Direct discrimination: When employees are treated less favourably as a result of being a man or a woman.
- Harassment: When somebody experiences unwanted behaviours that can include intimidation, unwanted sexual conduct, humiliation, offensive environments or hostility due to their sex
- Indirect discrimination: When you as an employer impose rules for men or women that give either sex an unfair disadvantage
- Victimisation: When employees are treated less favourably than other people because they have complained about discrimination or supported others who have
- Associative discrimination: When an employee is treated less favourably than another because they associate the somebody of a certain sex. I.e treating a man less favourably because he supported a female colleague who was experiencing discrimination.
Your Rights As An Employer
Whilst it can often feel like a minefield of do’s and don’t regard what can and can’t happen in the workplace without inviting a complaint, there are exceptions to discrimination law which mean employers are allowed to specifically select or favour men or women during recruitment or other areas of employment without fear of complaint.
For this to apply, you must be able to show that there is a genuine need for one sex over the other for the type of work involved. When taking positive action to address under-representation or other disadvantages within your staffing during recruitment or promotion, for example, this must be handled carefully under advice to prevent negative repercussions due to the complexities involved and it’s recommended that you take professional advice in either of these scenarios to prevent unwanted repercussion or complaints.
What Can You Do?
One of your key priorities as an employer is to provide a fair and inclusive work environment for your staff. There are plenty of simple things that you can do surrounding inclusion policies, communication, training, and workplace practices to address, prevent and manage sexual discrimination or bias in your workplace.
Inclusion policies aren’t a legal requirement but having one is a good indication to your employees and potential employees that you take the topic of sexual equality seriously and have given it the time and attention it deserves. Taking time to create policies that are regularly reviewed and offering staff training on topics like this helps to demonstrate that you have taken reasonable steps to prevent discrimination from occurring. This can work in your favour should a case of sexual discrimination ever be brought against you in court as it shows you take your legal and moral obligations towards being inclusive seriously and encourages employees to treat others respectfully too.
Communication & Training
Firms with clear and regularly communicated policies on matters such as sexual discrimination are much less likely to encounter issues among their team. By ensuring your commitments to workplace inclusion and what you expect from staff are set out and communicated to all, your staff will know where they stand.
Your policies and training should make it clear that employees need to know their responsibility to treat colleagues with respect, that you have a zero-tolerance for discrimination and the consequences of breaching these expected behaviours. Staff and line managers should know where to find this information, how to report instances of sex discrimination and most importantly, feel that they can do so. Line managers should be trained to spot signs of inappropriate behaviour in their teams and know how to act to address it fairly and consistently. Above all, any complaints should be managed swiftly, seriously and compassionately.
Employers should consider the following employment practices to help reduce the likelihood of direct or indirect sexual discrimination occurring:
- Having dedicated senior management team members responsible for driving awareness of gender inclusion and providing support and training on these matters
- Recruitment and selection processes must be fair and without discrimination based on sex. Consider language and images used and aim to attract a diverse range of candidates. A great way of doing this is to include a statement on your approach to considering flexible working if this is applicable and include a diversity statement in every job advert.
- Publicly share your firm’s inclusion and diversity policies on your website to show that you’re pro-actively engaged in this conversation.
- Ensure that your promotion pathways, performance review processes and development opportunities are inclusive for all, regardless of sex
- Your policies, procedures, terms and conditions of employment should all be free of sexual discrimination and be gender-neutral where possible. Dress code and flexible working practices can often fall foul of this.
- Proactively consider the reasons that gender imbalance may exist at all levels of your workplace and look at strategies to improve underrepresented sexes if appropriate.
As you can see, there are plenty of positive steps that you as employers can take to remove gender bias or sexual discrimination in the workplace. If you would like further information, Acas and GOV.UK provide free guidance on this topic, or you can discuss this with your Neathouse contact. The team can help you with writing policies, managing sexual discrimination cases raised at work and the best ways to raise staff awareness of the issue, so please do get in touch.