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Sex discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against unlawful direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation for the protected characteristic of ‘sex’.

Key points

  • The protected characteristic of ‘sex’ refers to being a man or a woman.
  • Direct discrimination occurs where a person is treated, or would be treated, less favourably ‘because of’ sex compared with others in like-for-like circumstances.
  • Indirect sex discrimination occurs when a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) puts an individual of one sex at a particular disadvantage compared to people of the other sex. An employer may be able to justify the PCP as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
  • An occupational requirement, where the nature or context of the work require a person to be of a particular sex, and religious requirements relating to sex, where employment is for the purposes of complying with the doctrine of an organised religion, can be lawful exceptions to direct and indirect discrimination.
  • Harassment occurs where unwanted conduct related to sex, or of a sexual nature, violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It also occurs where an individual is treated less favourably because he or she has either submitted to, or rejected, sex harassment, or harassment of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect described above.
  • Victimisation occurs where a person is subjected to a detriment for carrying out a ‘protected act’ (for example, bringing a discrimination claim).
  • Employers are liable for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by their employees ‘in the course of employment’.
Recent developments

The Government Equalities Office has recently issued long awaited guidance on dress codes and sex discrimination. The guidance has been published as a result of a petition begun when a female agency worker was sent home from work for not wearing high heels. More information on the guidance is in our article "New dress code guidance published"

In January 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released guidance offering practical examples of how to respond effectively to harassment, with a focus on sexual harassment, in the workplace.