Is all sex discrimination the same?
No. There are different types of sex discrimination, and it doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful. The main forms are:
Direct discrimination is where you are treated worse than others on grounds of your sex.
Example 1: A female candidate is not appointed to a post even though at interview she achieved a higher score than the successful candidate who is male. The employers based their decision on stereotypical assumptions about the woman’s ability to carry out the job.
Example 2: An employer makes an employee redundant because she is pregnant.
Example 3: An employee was subjected to a prolonged campaign of abuse and harassment from her colleagues at work when she announced her change of gender identity from male to female.
Example 4: An employer has a policy that only allows emergency leave to be taken where a spouse, child or parent is affected. An employee receives a telephone call informing him that his civil partner has been involved in an accident. The employee has been recorded as next of kin on his civil partner’s medical notes and is required at the hospital. The employer refuses the employee’s request for leave.
Indirect discrimination is where an organisation operates a practice or policy that looks the same for everyone but in effect disadvantages people of one particular sex and which cannot be shown to be a proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim.
Example: An employer requires all employees to work full-time. As more women than men have caring responsibilities for young children or dependent adults, they would find it harder to comply with this requirement.
Sexual harassment is where you are the target of unwanted behaviour that is of a sexual nature, and/or you find that, because of your sex, your dignity is violated by an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Behaviours include unwelcome touching, physical threats, comments about how you look, indecent remarks, sexual demands as well as questions about your sex life, being stared at or leered at or receiving sexually explicit pictures, emails or text messages. You don’t have to experience the behaviour repeatedly as a single act, if sufficiently serious, can be sexual harassment.
Example: A female works as second chef in a male dominated kitchen. Initially she experiences the odd crude comment and joke which does not surprise her. However she is subsequently subjected to ongoing harassment from a kitchen porter. This includes inappropriate touching, sexual talk, sexual conduct, and threats of physical violence towards her. She unsuccessfully takes a grievance about his behaviour within the company. However she wins her case of sexual harassment at the Tribunal.
is where you have made a complaint of sex discrimination or helped someone else with a complaint under the sex discrimination law, and suffered as a result.
For example: An employer refuses to offer one of their employees overtime because he was a witness for a colleague who took a sex discrimination case against them to the tribunal.
How am I protected against sex discrimination?
You are protected from sex discrimination in all aspects of working life:
- Applying for a job
- Working as an apprentice or being on work experience
- Terms and conditions in a job, including pay
- Opportunities for training / promotion
- How you are treated in terms of discipline and grievance issues
- The working environment and dealings with customers
- Dismissal / redundancy
- Pregnancy discrimination
- Job references
However, there are limited circumstances where sex discrimination is not unlawful - where a man or woman is needed to do a particular job. This is called genuine occupational requirement (GOR).
Genuine occupational requirement examples:
- A man or woman is needed for a specific purpose such as modelling or acting roles.
- A female worker is required for a domestic violence unit; the justification being that women are seeking refuge from men.
- A male or female is required for reasons of decency or privacy where the job involves close physical contact or people undressing.
What if my complaint relates to pay?
Women and men doing the same work or work of equal value are entitled to equal pay.
You will have an equal pay complaint if you are being paid less than someone of the opposite sex in the same employment and doing:
Work which is the same or broadly similar (known as like work)
Work which has been rated equivalent under a job evaluation scheme
Work which is different but which is of equal value in terms of the demands of the job.
Difference in pay between male and female employees can only be justified if there is a genuine material factor other than sex, such as:
Skills and shortages
Different skills, qualifications and experience
Example: A female is employed 3 years by a construction company as a Health and Safety Officer. During pay negotiations she receives a male colleague’s pay rise letter in error and discovers that despite a year’s less service than her and less responsibility he earns £7,000 more for doing the same job. He also has a car allowance. She takes an equal pay case and settles for £15,000.
The term pay includes:
What if my issue is pregnancy or maternity related?
Pregnant women and new mothers have legal employment rights which are designed to protect their health and safety and that of their expected or new-born children. These rights also protect their contractual terms and conditions of employment and are designed to prevent unlawful discrimination.
Pregnant women and new mothers have the right to:
- paid time-off for ante-natal care
- maternity leave
- maternity pay
- protection from unfair treatment or dismissal
For further information see our section on Pregnancy and maternity at work - your employment rights
What if my issue is related to gender reassignment?
Sex discrimination (Gender reassignment) law protects you from discrimination in all aspects of your working life including applying for a job, your terms and conditions of employment including practical issues such as dress codes and toilet facilities, the working environment and dealings with customers, dismissal/redundancy and job references.
The menopause and work
If you are experiencing symptoms of the menopause, your employer has a duty of care to consider the impact of your work environment on your health and safety. They should seek to understand any specific requirements for changes that will:
- ensure your menopausal symptoms are not made worse by workplace conditions/practices; and
- help you manage your symptoms when doing your job.
Equality law and the menopause
Statutory equality law does not expressly provide protection for menopause or perimenopause. However, menopause related discrimination could be unlawful on the grounds of sex, disability, or age.
Workplace discrimination could take several forms.
- Direct discrimination is when you are treated worse (e.g. disciplined or dismissed) than other people because of your sex or age, or, if you are disabled, because of your disability.
- Indirect discrimination is when the same practices or policies (e.g. dress codes or performance standards) are applied to everyone but which, in effect, causes greater disadvantages for people of your sex or age and for you.
- Harassment is when you are subjected to offensive or insulting behaviour related to your sex, age or disability (e.g. derogatory comments about your menopause).
- If you are disabled and your employer fails to comply with a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate your disability.
Health and safety considerations and the menopause
Your employer should carry out an assessment. With the menopause and perimenopause, an assessment should, for example, include:
- the temperature and ventilation in the workplace;
- effects of a uniform on body temperature or skin irritation;
- adequacy of restroom facilities;
- whether toilet and washroom facilities are easily available; and
- whether cold drinking water is easily available
- Help for employers to put policies and procedures in place
Employers should have policies for dealing with menopause related issues. If your workplace doesn’t, let them know about our guide for menopause related policies and procedures (pdf)
What are my options?
1. Contact our Discrimination Advice Officers who will provide you with free and confidential information and guidance to help you resolve your issue.
2. Raise your complaint directly with your employer and seek a resolution.
3. If a resolution is not reached and you wish to take your case further you must notify the Labour Relations Agency. You will be offered early conciliation which can help you and your employer resolve the issue before you need to make a claim.
4. If your complaint is still not resolved you can lodge a claim with the tribunals. We may be able to provide you with legal representation. It is your responsibility to lodge your complaint of discrimination with the tribunal.
Only a tribunal decides whether the treatment you have complained of is unlawful discrimination. It is separate to, and independent from, the Equality Commission.
If you require assistance or would like to make a discrimination complaint, complete our online form or telephone 028 90 500 600 (10am-4pm, Mon-Fri).
Publications (in pdf format)
relevant to sex discrimination:
Pregnancy and maternity at work
See our new section of frequently asked questions relating to rights and responsibilities around pregnancy and maternity: Pregnancy and maternity at work - your employment rights
The Equality Commission conducted a investigation into the employment experiences of pregnant women and mothers, on maternity leave and on their return to work. Almost 1,000 women across Northern Ireland responded to our online survey sharing their experiences through focus group discussions and interviews. Read more about investigations
Transsexual support groups:
Time limits apply
Remember there are strict time limits for taking a case of sex discrimination. Complaints on employment issues must be made to the tribunals within three months from the date of the discriminatory act. Even if you are attempting to resolve problems internally, the statutory time limits still apply.
If you wish to lodge a claim with the tribunals, you must first notify the Labour Relations Agency and discuss the option of early conciliation. Potential claimants will not be able to proceed to tribunal without at least considering this option. Your time limit is likely to be affected by this.
If your time limit has expired the tribunal has discretion to extend the time for you to lodge your claim. This is used sparingly and it is unwise to assume that an extension will be granted. You still need to contact the Labour Relations Agency before you lodge a claim out of time.
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