Sex discrimination: an introduction
Men and women have the right not to be discriminated against at work because of their gender.
Some employers have outdated ideas about what work is appropriate for women, what work is appropriate for men, and how that work should be rewarded. Some employers allow or ignore sexual harassment in the workplace or apply rules that put either women or men at an unfair disadvantage.
Although there has been an Equal Pay Act in force in the UK since 1975, women still earn an average of 19.8% less than men, according to the Office for National Statistics.
More than two thirds of UNISON members are women. As well as earning less than men, women are more likely to face sex discrimination and harassment at work.
Many women also have caring commitments and have to juggle work and home commitments, so they are more likely to work part-time, to take career breaks or be overlooked for promotion. All these factors combine so that women also receive much lower pensions and many women retire into poverty.
These are just some of the reasons why UNISON takes sex discrimination seriously. We are committed to leading negotiating and campaigning on women’s rights at work and in the community and to fighting sex discrimination wherever it arises.
2010 Equality Act
Sex discrimination is one of the areas covered by the 2010 Equality Act which includes legislation against many forms of discrimination. In Northern Ireland there is not yet an all-encompassing equalities Act addressing discrimination. However, there are various pieces of legislation addressing the same areas as the Equality Act and listed below.
The issue of sex discrimination is addressed in Northern Ireland by the Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976 (SDO). In addition, in Northern Ireland, but not in Great Britain yet, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their political opinion.
The 2010 Equality Act (and the Northern Ireland equivalents) aims to protect everyone’s rights in all areas of their lives. As well as sex discrimination, the 2010 Act protects people from discrimination in these areas:
- gender reassignment;
- marriage and civil partnership;
- pregnancy and maternity;
- religion and belief;
- sexual orientation.
Under the legislation, people are not allowed to discriminate, harass or victimise another person just because they fall into one of these categories. In the workplace, this means treating people equally in all aspects of their work:
- when they apply for a job;
- terms and conditions;
- part-time and flexible working arrangements;
- pay and benefits;
- training, development, promotion and appraisals;
- dismissal, redundancy and retirement.
The law defines four types of sexual discrimination:
- direct discrimination – treating someone less favourably because of their gender;
- harassment – unwanted behaviour related to a person’s gender or unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person;
- indirect discrimination – when an employer imposes a rule for men and women that puts either men or women at an unfair disadvantage;
- victimisation – when you are treated less favourably than other people because you have complained about discrimination or supported someone who has.
There are many areas of potential conflict under the general heading of sex discrimination. These include 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.
UNISON and equal pay
One of the fundamental principles we stand for at UNISON is equal pay. Nobody should be paid less because of their gender.
The law says that people doing the same or similar work, work which is of equal value or work that has been rated as equal through job evaluation must be paid the same – this is a principle that we defend using negotiation, litigation and direct action.
Next steps for UNISON reps
- Learn about the terms of the 2010 Equality Act.
- Learn about the terms of the SDO and the Equal Pay Act (NI) 1970 (as amended).
- Sex discrimination – treating people differently because they are women or men – is still widespread in the UK.
- There is still a pay gap of around 19% between women and men.
- UNISON campaigns for fairer pay and conditions for all workers, regardless of their gender.
A co-worker makes me feel uncomfortable with the things he says about my appearance and questions about my personal life. What should I do?
It is considered harassment if your manager or co-workers engage in unwanted behaviour related to your gender or behaviour of a sexual nature which violates your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive atmosphere.
You are protected from such harassment under the Equality Act 2010 (the SDO in Northern Ireland).
You should speak to your UNISON rep immediately, and in the meantime make a record of any incidents.
Can I claim for equal pay even though I’ve moved to a new job?
Equal pay law allows you to claim loss of earnings and interest up to a maximum six years in the past – or five in Scotland.
However, if your new job is with a new employer you must usually bring your claim within the period of six months beginning with the last day of your employment with your previous employer.
Even if the new job is with the same employer, you must generally bring your claim within the same six-month time limit unless the new job involves the variation of your existing contract of employment as opposed to the entering into of a new contract of employment.
Contact your UNISON rep for more information.
I am being discriminated against because of my gender. What should I do?
You may want to raise the issue with your line manager first.
If you can’t resolve the issue informally, speak to your UNISON rep.
You should be aware that strict time limits apply to making a tribunal claim, usually three months less one day from the date of the act of discrimination.
In Northern Ireland the time limit is exactly three months.
I want to return to work after having my baby, but my manager says there is no longer a job for me. What can I do?
You have the right to return to your job (or a suitable and appropriate alternative job if you are returning to work after additional as opposed to ordinary maternity leave and it is not reasonably practicable for your employer to permit you to return to your old job).
It is unlawful for your employers to discriminate against you for reasons connected to pregnancy (including pregnancy-related illness) or maternity leave. See your UNISON representative immediately.
What if I’ve retired? Can I still claim for equal pay in my last job?
Yes, provided you put in your claim promptly, and usually within six months of leaving your job.