Skip to content Skip to footer

This advice applies to England. Change country

Discrimination because of sex

What is sex discrimination

Sex discrimination is when you are treated unfairly either because you are a man or because you are a woman.

If sex discrimination takes place in any of the following situations it is illegal and you may be able to take action about it:

Sex discrimination can be direct or indirect. It can also take the form of victimisation or harassment.

Sex discrimination does not need to be deliberate. Someone may be discriminating against you without realising it or meaning to, but this might still count as discrimination.

The law against sex discrimination does not allow positive discrimination in favour of one sex. For example, an employer is not allowed to insist on only recruiting or promoting women to a particular job because women have previously been discriminated against when applying for that role.

Positive discrimination is not the same as positive action, which is allowed.

As well as protecting you from sex discrimination against men and women, the law also protects you from:

For more information about pregnancy and maternity discrimination, see Discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave. See also Pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

For more information about discrimination because of your sexual orientation, see Sexual orientation discrimination.

Direct sex discrimination

It is direct sex discrimination to treat someone less favourably because of their sex than someone of the other sex would be treated in the same circumstances.

To prove direct sex discrimination, it will help if you can give an example of someone of a different sex who, in similar circumstances, has been, or would have been, treated more favourably than you.

Sexist abuse and harassment are forms of direct discrimination.

Examples of direct sex discrimination include:

  • refusing credit to a married woman without her husband’s signature, while a married man is not required to have his wife’s signature
  • refusing to accept a woman’s salary as the basis for a mortgage because of her sex
  • a nightclub charging a higher price for entry to a man because of his sex
  • advertising a job for a ‘waiter’. This gives the impression that the job is only open to men.

For more information about direct discrimination, see Direct discrimination.

Indirect sex discrimination

It is indirect sex discrimination to have a rule, policy or practice which someone of a particular sex is less likely to be able to meet than and this places them at a disadvantage to the opposite sex.

Examples of indirect sex discrimination might include:

  • an employer requiring all their employees to work full-time. A lot more women have caring responsibilities for young children or dependant adults so they would find it much more difficult than men to work full-time
  • a mortgage provider who only gives mortgages to people who work full- time. This is likely to mean that less women than men will be given a mortgage as more women than men work part-time.

If you think that indirect sex discrimination might have occurred, you may be able to make a complaint about it. However, if the person or organisation you are complaining about can show that there are genuine reasons for the rule, policy or practice and that it has nothing to do with sex, this won't count as discrimination.

For more information about indirect discrimination, see Indirect discrimination.

Victimisation

If you complain about sex discrimination, you shouldn’t be victimised because you complained. This means that you shouldn’t be treated unfairly just because you’ve made a complaint.

Making a complaint includes taking a case to court, going to an employment tribunal or standing up for your rights in some other way.

You can get protection if you are victimised because you’ve made a complaint about sex discrimination. You can also get protection from discrimination for helping someone else to make a complaint about sex discrimination, for example, by giving evidence as a witness in court.

I have complained to my manager about the sexist calendars that the men have up at work. They've had to take them down, but now no one in the office will talk to me. It's very upsetting and I think it's making me ill. Is there anything that can be done?

This could be an example of victimisation. Victimisation after you have complained about sex discrimination is illegal. Get advice from your trade union if you have one or from an experienced adviser, for example, at a CAB, or from an organisation which can give further help.

For more information about victimisation, see Victimisation.

Sex discrimination in employment and training

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of your sex. This includes all employers, no matter how few people they employ. Most workers, including employees, agency workers, trainees and those who are self-employed have protection from sex discrimination at work. This includes:

  • recruitment and selection
  • promotion
  • training, pay and benefits
  • redundancy and dismissal
  • terms and conditions of work.

There are special rules to protect women who are pregnant or on maternity leave from discrimination at work.

For more information about discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave, see Discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave.

I went for an apprenticeship as a nursery nurse but they said they only take on women and don’t take on men. Can they do this?

No they can't. It's against the law for a company to discriminate against anyone because of their sex in providing training. Get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at your local CAB or from an organisation which can give further help.

Equal Pay

The Equal Pay Act 1970 gives you the right to be treated equally in terms of pay in comparison to a member of the opposite sex.

If you believe you are not being treated equally, you may be able to make a complaint, or bring a claim to an employment tribunal.

If you wanted to do this, you would need to compare yourself to someone of the opposite sex who works for the same employer as you. You would need to be able to show that you:

  • are doing like work. This means work which is the same or broadly similar to that of the other person, or
  • are doing work which has been rated as equivalent to the other person's under a job evaluation study
  • are doing work which is of equal value to that of the other person. For example, you need to use a similar amount of effort, skill and decision-making abilities.

Discrimination at work if you have caring responsibilities

You are protected by law if you are discriminated against at work because you have caring responsibilities. Caring responsibilities includes looking after your child or, for example, an elderly or disabled adult.

It could count as sex discrimination if your employer refuses to let you work flexibly in order to carry out your caring responsibilities. Working flexibly includes:

  • working less or different hours
  • working part-time
  • working a job-share
  • coming in later so that you can take your child to school or nursery
  • taking time off to go to hospital appointments with the person you care for.

If the child or adult you are caring for is disabled, it might also count as disability discrimination if your employer treats you worse than other employees because of your caring responsibilities. This is known as disability discrimination by association.

For more information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination.

For more information about flexible working, see Basic rights at work.

Are there times when an employer is allowed to treat you less favourably because of your sex?

If an employer can show that you need to be a particular sex in order to do a certain job, they can insist on employing someone of that sex. This is known as an occupational requirement and does not count as discrimination.

An example of where it might be an occupational requirement to employ only women is for a job as a counsellor in a women's refuge. The employers would be able to argue that as their clients are all women who have experienced domestic violence by men, they would probably only want to talk to another woman about it.

In some circumstances, it may be possible for employers recruiting to a job in an organised religion to insist on only employing someone of a particular sex.

For example, it may be possible for the employers of a religious Minister to argue that they can only employ a man in order to avoid offending the religious convictions of the religion's followers. They may also be able to argue that they can't employ a transsexual person or a gay man for the same reasons.

Sex discrimination in education

It is illegal for either a state or private educational establishment to discriminate against you because of your sex.

This includes admission policies, unless it is a single-sex establishment.

So, for example, a mixed-sex school should not refuse admission to a pupil because of their sex. And they shouldn't try to maintain a balance between the numbers of boys and girls in the school by admitting one sex and not another when places are limited.

A girl and boy must have the same access to the school curriculum. This means that they must be given exactly the same subject options and the same amount of subject teaching.

It is also illegal for any educational establishment to discriminate in the way it provides services to its students. For example, school students should have equal access to course option consultation and careers guidance. Any counselling provided must not be discriminatory.

My daughter was refused a place at the school of our choice. The head teacher said they only had places left for boys. Can a school reserve a set number of places for either girls or boys?

No, it's illegal for a mixed-sex school to discriminate in its admission policies. They should not refuse admission to a pupil because of their sex. Get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a local CAB.

What can you do about sex discrimination in education?

You can make a complaint about discrimination by a school, college, university or Local Education Authority in your local county court (sheriff court in Scotland).

If your complaint is about a school, you should first try to resolve your complaint by talking to the school's headteacher. If you are still unhappy, you can then take your complaint to the school's governing body.

For more information about how to complain about a school, see Problems at school.

If your complaint is about a college or university, you should first use the institution's own complaints procedure. If you are complaining about a further education college funded by the Skills funding Agency you could also complain to the Agency. Information about how to do this is available on the Agency's website at: www.skillsfundingangency.bis.gov.uk.

If your complaint is about a university in England or Wales, you could take your complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA).The OIA can be contacted at:

Third Floor
Kings Reach
38-50 King's Road
Reading
RG1 3AA
Tel: 0118 959 9813
Website: www.oiahe.org.uk.

If you have a complaint about a university in Scotland, you should complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman at: www.spso.org.uk.

For more information about how to use an ombudsman in Scotland and when to use one, see How to use an ombudsman or commissioner in Scotland.

If you are thinking about taking court action about discrimination, you should get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your local CAB including those that can give e-mail advice, click on nearest CAB.

Sex discrimination when providing goods, facilities and services

It is illegal for anyone providing goods, facilities or services in the UK to discriminate because you are a man or woman.

Examples of goods, facilities and services include, shops, financial services such as banking, leisure facilities such as pubs and clubs, entertainment and transport.

Someone providing goods, facilities or services must not:

  • refuse to provide you with goods, facilities or services because you are a man or a woman
  • provide any of these things on less favourable terms or conditions because you are a man or a woman.

It is illegal to discriminate regardless of how the goods and services are provided or whether you have to pay for them or not.

For example, it’s illegal for someone to discriminate against you when you’re buying something in a shop or over the internet, when you’re making a telephone enquiry or when someone gives you written information.

Financial services

It is illegal for a financial services provider to discriminate against you because of your sex.

Examples of discrimination would be:

  • asking a married woman to provide a guarantor for a loan when a man in a similar position would not be asked to do the same
  • insisting that a married woman asking for a loan must apply jointly with her husband when married men don't have to apply jointly with their wives
  • setting stricter conditions when a woman asks for a business loan than when a man does.

It is not illegal for an insurance company to discriminate against you because of your sex when the company is assessing risk. The company would need to be able to show that the discrimination is reasonable and that it is based on specific data.

An example of where an insurance company would be able to discriminate is a life insurance company where, because women and men have different life expectancies, they can be charged different rates.

Pubs and clubs

In general, it is illegal for a pubs and clubs to discriminate against men or women, although there are some exceptions for private clubs.

For example, a pub is not allowed to refuse to serve a woman a drink in a pint glass if men are served drink in pint glasses.

Another example of sex discrimination is a club which offers free entrance only to women. However, a private members' club is allowed to discriminate against women or men in this way. Examples of a private members' club include working men’s clubs, golf clubs, bowling clubs, and gentlemen’s clubs.

Although private members' clubs can discriminate against their members, they are not allowed to discriminate against their employees because of sex.

Sex discrimination and public authorities

It's illegal for a public authority to discriminate against you because of your sex while carrying out any of it's functions. Public authorities includes government departments, local authorities, NHS trusts, courts and tribunals, police officers and prisons.

On top of this, public authorities have a legal duty to take action against discrimination and to actively advance equality.

This means that public authorities must make sure that men and women get services that meet their needs more closely.

For more information about the duties of public authorities and sex discrimination, visit the Equality and Human Rights Commission's website at: www.equalityhumanrights.com.

Sex discrimination and advertising

With a few limited exceptions, it's illegal to publish or broadcast an advert which discriminates because of sex, or which advertises discriminatory services. For example, it is illegal for an employer to advertise for a job using words like 'craftsman' or 'handyman', as this might give the impression that the job is only open to men.

If an advertisement like this is published, the Equality and Human Rights Commission can take court action against the publisher, if the case is referred to them by an advice agency.

Sex discrimination and charities

It is not illegal for a charity to provide benefits to people of one sex only, provided this is set out in the charity’s constitution or rules.

Sex discrimination in housing

For more information about discrimination in housing, see Discrimination in housing.

Sex discrimination in sport

It is not illegal to limit participation in some sporting events to one sex only. This is where physical strength, stamina or physique are so important that, for example, a woman would be at a competitive disadvantage to a man.

It is not illegal to limit a sporting activity to one sex only where a member of one sex might object to physical contact with someone of the opposite sex. For example, it is not illegal for a self-defence class to limit itself to women participants.

If a sports club is a private members' club, it is allowed to discriminate against men or women when choosing its' members.

What can you do about sex discrimination

If you think you’ve suffered sex discrimination there are a number of things you may be able to do. These include:

  • talking to the person or organisation that discriminated against you
  • using a grievance procedure or making a claim to an employment tribunal if it is an employment problem
  • publicising your case through the media
  • taking legal action through the courts
  • giving details of the problem to an advice agency who may be able to refer it to the Equality and Human Rights Commission if you believe the problem is widespread.

When deciding what action to take about sex discrimination, you will need to think about what you are trying to achieve. For example, do you want financial compensation, justice or publicity? You will also need to think about how quickly you need to get a result.

Any course of action is likely to be complicated, could include confrontation and may involve court action. If you are thinking about taking court action, you should get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your local CAB including those that can give e-mail advice, click on nearest CAB.

If you want to take legal action about sex discrimination, you will normally need to be able to prove that someone of a different sex has been, or would have been, treated more favourably than you in similar circumstances.

However, if you're making a claim about discrimination because you're pregnant or on maternity leave, you don't need to prove that someone of the opposite sex has been treated more favourably than you.

For more information about what you can do about discrimination, see Taking action about discrimination.

For more information about discrimination because of pregnancy and maternity leave, see Discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave.

Positive action

The law against sex discrimination does allow what is known as positive action in favour of one sex.

Positive action is used, often in training or advertising, to make up for a lack of equal opportunity in the past. It is intended to give special encouragement to one sex, without actually discriminating against the other. An example of positive action is giving extra training to female members of staff to help them be able to apply for a particular role if very few or no women have been employed in that role in the past.

Gender reassignment

It is illegal to discriminate against you if you are undergoing gender reassignment.

Gender reassignment is where you are changing from one sex to another.

It is also illegal to discriminate against you if you are intending to undergo or have already undergone gender reassignment. You do not have to be undergoing medical treatment.

If you experience discrimination because of gender reassignment, you can take action about this either through the courts or, if it's an employment problem, through an employment tribunal.

An example of discrimination because of gender reassignment is where a transsexual woman is asked for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) when she shows evidence to her employer that she has changed her name and asks to have her records changed.

As long as she shows some kind of proof that her name has changed, she shouldn't have to show a GRC. If her employer asks her for more proof than they would ask someone else who changed their name for another reason, this could be discrimination.

For more information about gender reassignment discrimination, see Gender reassignment discrimination.  

Married people and people in a civil partnership

In some situations, it is illegal to discriminate against you because you are married or in a registered civil partnership.

This doesn't apply to housing, goods and services or education.

There is no law which says you must not be discriminated against because you're single, although it may be possible to argue this in certain circumstances.

For more information about discrimination because of marriage and civil partnership, see Marriage and civil partnership discrimination.

Other types of discrimination

As well as sex discrimination, you could be discriminated against for other reasons. For example because:

  • of race
  • you're pregnant or on maternity leave
  • of sexual orientation
  • you're married or in a civil partnership
  • of gender reassignment
  • of disability
  • of religion.

For example, you're a black transsexual woman and you're sacked because your employer says your work is poor, even though they have never raised problems with you before. If you think you've been sacked because you're black and a transsexual woman, you may be able to make two claims, one for race discrimination and one for discrimination because of gender reassignment.

For more information about other types of discrimination, see our discrimination pages.

Help with taking a sex discrimination case

If you want to take legal action about sex discrimination, you may be able to get some help with your case.

You can get advice about this from your local Citizens Advice Bureau, or from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. To find details of your local CAB, including those which can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

If you qualify for legal aid, you may get free legal advice and assistance from a solicitor. This comes under Legal Help (advice and assistance scheme in Scotland,). You might also be able to get help with the cost of taking a case to court under Legal Representation.

For information about legal aid, see Help with legal costs.

Further help

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

More about the EASS helpline

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at www.equalityhumanrights.com.

Law centres

A law centre can offer free legal advice if you want to take a case for sex discrimination. If a solicitor from a law centre represents you, you may be entitled to publicly-funded legal services (legal aid in Scotland). In England and Wales, details of the nearest law centre are available from the Law Centres Network, and in Scotland from the Scottish Association of Law Centres.

England and Wales

Law Centres Network
Floor 1, Tavis House
1-6 Tavistock Square
London
WC1H 9NA

Tel: 020 3637 1330 (admin only)
Email: contact form available on the website
Website: www.lawcentres.org.uk

Scotland

Scottish Association of Law Centres
c/o Govan Law Centre
47 Burleigh Street
Govan
Glasgow
G51 3LB

Tel: 0141 440 2503
E-mail: m@govanlc.com
Website: www.govanlc.com/salc

Free Representation Unit (England)

The Free Representation Unit (FRU) can provide representation for people on a low income and living in the London area. However, the FRU is a voluntary organisation and representation in cases cannot be guaranteed. If you want help from the FRU, you must be referred in writing by another agency once the date of a hearing has been set. The agency must be an FRU subscriber. Some Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) in the London area are subscribers to the FRU. The contact details of CABx can be found in the local telephone directory or on the Citizens Advice website at www.citizensadvice.org.uk. The FRU can be contacted at:

Ground Floor
60 Gray's Inn Road
London
WC1X 8LU

Tel: 020 7611 9555
Fax: 020 7611 9551
Email: available through a form on the website
Website: www.thefru.org.uk

Free Representation (Scotland)

There is some free representation available in Scotland for tribunals and courts. It is only available for certain cases and for people on a low income. It is only available through a Citizens Advice Bureau.

To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.