Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Sex discrimination can happen both directly and indirectly in the workplace, so it’s important to be able to notice and react if you’re made aware that any of your employees have been made victim to discrimination. 

What is Sex Discrimination?

Ultimately sex discrimination means that you are being treated differently because of your sex. While the UK is still fighting towards gender equality within the workplace, there are still situations in which sex discrimination is incredibly active. Under The Equality Act, sex discrimination applies if someone has treated you differently because you are (or are not) a particular sex, someone thinks you are the opposite sex, or you are connected to someone of a particular sex. Noticing signs and having an open policy to talk about these situations will encourage victims of discrimination to come forward. 

Sex Discrimination Act Summary

The Sex Discrimination Act was initially launched in 1975 before it was added to The Equality Act in 2010 to cover multiple bases. This ultimately made it so individuals would not be discriminated against in the workplace in relation to selection for a job, training, promotion, work practices, dismissal or sexual harassment because of their sex or marital status. 

The law against sex discrimination also doesn’t allow positive discrimination in favour of one sex – so an employer cannot recruit or promote a woman for a particular job due to historic discrimination. Under the same law sex discrimination protects pregnancy and maternity discrimination, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnerships or sexual orientation.

The Various Types of Sex Discrimination

Sex Discrimination is not as simple as overt reactions, there are multiple types to consider when it comes to understanding what can be considered discrimination. As an employer, it is vital to know the types of discrimination that you could be dealing with, including: 


Direct discrimination is the one most commonly recognised across all industries; it would be considered direct sex discrimination if someone is treated less favourably due to their sex than someone of the opposite sex would be in the same situation. If someone of the opposite sex, in similar circumstances, has historically been treated more favourably, it would work in the favour of the employee to be able to prove it. Both sexist abuse and harassment would be classed as forms of direct discrimination. 

Sex discrimination can happen to all genders, including if a nightclub charged a high price for entry to a man because of his sex – while women get in free; something which is incredibly common. 

Similarly, if a man is required for a certain situation, like approval for a bank loan, mortgage, or statement, but his wife is not, this would be considered sex discrimination. 


While most people would recognise direct discrimination, it’s vital to be able to recognise warning signs of indirect discrimination. In some of these circumstances, the employer may not even be aware that what they’re doing is discriminatory. These can be situations that happen in the background, like a change in shift patterns, full time work becoming essential for a mortgage application or similar circumstances – though this can be defended if there is a good reason for the policy, which is known as objective justification. 

One main example of this is if an employer decides to change flexible shift patterns or makes all their employees work full time rather than offering part time contracts. While this doesn’t actively discriminate specifically against one sex, it could discriminate against parents who can no longer arrive to collect their children. 

Women who have dependent children have an employment rate of 74% – which is likely to be far higher if companies implemented flexible working timetables. This would also support closing the gender pay gap and the disproportionate amount of women in high power positions, as they would be far more likely to take on opportunities if they are able to work on a more flexible schedule.


There are multiple kinds of harassment relating to sex, with the first type protecting all of the protected characteristics; when someone makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded. 

Any of the protected groups could feel at risk in this situation, for example if an off-the-cuff comment was made to say that there was no point promoting women because they plan to have children – this could concern females in the office, whether they have children or not. 

The second type of harassment is sexual harassment, this would be unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and covers comments, physical treatment, touching and assault. This can also be extended to sending emails or putting up offensive images around the office. 

The third type is if an individual is treated unfairly because they refused to put up with sexual harassment. One example of this is if the manager invites a female employee out for a drink and she declines, then she is turned down for a promotion, the individual may believe they have been turned down due  to the proposition. 

If an employer is able to put in practices to ensure this doesn’t happen, on the occasion that it may it is far more likely that a claim will be made against the harasser, rather than the organisation. 


If an individual is being treated badly due to making a complaint of sex related discrimination, they have been victimised. Nobody should be punished for coming forward about sexual discrimination, which is why it is essential to have the correct practices in place in regards to supporting employees through the process. 

Current Circumstances Where Being Treated Differently Due to Sex Is Lawful

There are some times where it is possible to treat someone differently due to their sex, namely in getting a specific job; but only if it is an occupational requirement. 

Some key examples of this is if you were employing someone to work at a women’s refuge and support women who have dealt with domestic violence, it’s likely to be better for the survivors to have a woman to speak to. 

Similarly, with certain religious groups they may only be able to employ a man in a particular role to avoid offending the religious convictions or the followers. 

Positive action is also encouraged across multiple groups if there is an under-represented or disadvantaged group in society. For example, in STEM roles it might be advertised that applications from women are welcome to ensure that more women are getting into the industry to support equality industry-wide. 

If further advice is required to understand how your workplace can put the correct procedures in place, you can contact ICENA for extra training.