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Taking action about sex discrimination

What is sex discrimination

The Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976 makes discrimination against someone on the grounds of their sex illegal. Sex discrimination can be direct or indirect. It can also take the form of victimisation.

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.

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
  • allowing women (or men) free entry to a club or cheap drinks when this concession is not given at the same time to men (or women)
  • advertising a vacancy for a ‘waiter’, implying that the job is only open to men
  • sexual harassment
  • dismissing an employee because she is pregnant - see under heading Where sex discrimination is unlawful.

Indirect sex discrimination

Indirect discrimination is where an employer has a rule, policy or practice which puts someone at a disadvantage because of their sex and cannot be justified.

Examples of indirect sex discrimination include:-

a requirement that an employee should not have young children. The proportion of women having responsibility for young children is much higher than that of men and this is also unlikely to be a justifiable requirement for employment (regardless of sex)

the dismissal of all part-time workers in a firm where all of the part-time workers are female. This may also be direct sex discrimination

a mortgage provider insisting that only people who work full time can be given a mortgage. This is more likely to have an adverse effect on women than men, as women are more likely to work part time.

Victimisation

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?

It could be against the law for you to be victimised like this. Get advice from your trade union if you have one or from an experienced adviser, for example, at a CAB.

Under the law, victimisation occurs where someone is treated less favourably as a result of complaining, bringing proceedings or otherwise asserting their rights under sex discrimination legislation. It is also victimisation if a person is treated less favourably because they have supported someone else taking action, for example, by acting as a witness in a sex discrimination case.

Duties of public authorities

Public authorities have a duty to get rid of sex discrimination and promote equality between the sexes.

This means that public authorities such as local councils, schools, hospitals, the police and government departments, 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 Commission's website at: www.equalityni.org.

When is sex discrimination unlawful

It is unlawful to discriminate on grounds of someone's sex in relation to:

  • employment and training
  • education
  • the provision of goods and services, for example, financial matters, entertainment and transport
  • housing
  • advertisements.

Employment and training

I went for an apprenticeship as a nursery nurse but they said they don’t take on young 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.

It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against someone on the grounds of sex. This includes all employers, no matter how few people they employ. Most workers, including employees, trainees and those who are self-employed have legal protection from sex discrimination in all aspects of employment including recruitment, selection, promotion, training, pay and benefits, redundancy, dismissal and terms and conditions of work.

For more information about employment and self-employment, see Contracts of employment.

Equal Pay Act (NI) 1970

The Equal Pay Act (NI) 1970 gives a person the right to be treated equally in terms of pay in comparison to a member of the opposite sex. The people who are being compared must be working in the same place or working at different establishments for the same employer. A woman who believes she is being discriminated against would have to show that she is employed:-

  • in ‘like work’, that is, work that is the same or broadly similar to a man; or
  • in work which has been rated as equivalent to a man’s job under a job evaluation study; or
  • in work which is of equal value to that of a man in terms of, for example, effort, skill and decision making.

Pregnancy, maternity and employment

I'm four months' pregnant and I daren't tell my boss. The last woman who got pregnant at our workplace was sacked because they said they were only a small company and they couldn't afford to pay cover for her when she was on maternity leave. In the meantime, I'm still lifting heavy loads and I'm afraid the baby might be harmed. What rights have I got?

Your company does not have the right to dismiss you because you're pregnant. This is automatically sex discrimination and if you do get sacked, you could make a claim to the employment tribunal and they could pay you compensation. The important thing to do is to get advice as soon as possible. If you're a trade union member, get advice from them. Or get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at your local CAB.

It is direct sex discrimination to dismiss a woman because she is pregnant, or for a reason connected to maternity leave. As only a woman can become pregnant or go on maternity leave, dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy is automatically discrimination on grounds of sex.

A woman who is dismissed because she is pregnant can also claim that she has been unfairly dismissed, regardless of how long she has worked for her employer. However, as there is a maximum limit on the compensation that can be awarded for unfair dismissal but no limit on compensation for sex discrimination, a woman dismissed for being pregnant or a reason connected with maternity leave should claim sex discrimination as well as unfair dismissal.

For more information on maternity rights at work, see Parental rights at work.

Transgender people

It is unlawful to discriminate in employment and vocational training against someone who intends to undergo, is undergoing, or has already undergone gender reassignment - see under heading Taking action about sex discrimination.

Married people and people in a civil partnership

In the case of employment, it is sex discrimination to discriminate against a person of either sex for being married or in a registered civil partnership. There is no provision covering discrimination against a person for being single, although it may be possible to argue this.

Education

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 against the law 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.

It is unlawful for a state or private educational establishment to discriminate in its admission policies, unless it is a single sex establishment. For example, a mixed sex school should not refuse admission to a pupil on grounds of their sex, or attempt to maintain a gender balance 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, that is, they must be given exactly the same subject options and the same amount of subject teaching.

It is unlawful 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.

Goods, facilities and services

It is against the law for anyone providing goods, facilities or services to discriminate on grounds of sex by refusing to provide them, or to discriminate in the way in which they are provided. It is also against the law to discriminate in this way against transsexual people or against women because of their pregnancy or maternity. It doesn't matter whether the goods, services or facilities are provided for payment or free.

Financial services

It is unlawful for a financial services provider to discriminate by, for example, asking a married woman to provide a guarantor for a loan (unless a man in a similar position would also be asked to do this), insisting that a married woman seeking a loan must apply jointly with her husband (unless all married applicants are asked to apply jointly) or setting more stringent conditions when a woman asks for a business loan than when a man does. It may be lawful, however, to discriminate when providing insurance cover - see under heading Where sex discrimination is not unlawful.

Pubs and clubs

It is unlawful for a pub to discriminate by, for example, refusing to serve a woman a drink in a pint glass (unless the same restriction also applies to men) or for a club to discriminate by offering free entrance only to women. However, discrimination may be lawful in the case of a private club - see under heading Where sex discrimination is not unlawful.

Housing

It is unlawful for a person or organisation responsible for selling or letting a property to discriminate on grounds of sex in the terms on which the premises are offered. It is unlawful to discriminate in the treatment of people listed as needing accommodation, for example, in local authority housing lists. It is also unlawful to discriminate against a tenant once a property is occupied.

There are some areas in housing in which discrimination is not unlawful - see under heading Where sex discrimination is not unlawful.

Advertisements

It is unlawful for someone to publish an advertisement which indicates an intention to discriminate on grounds of sex. For example, it is unlawful for a club open to the public to advertise free admission for women while making men pay or for an employer to use expressions that have a sexual connotation in advertisements, such as 'craftsman', 'manageress' or 'handyman'.

Where sex discrimination is not unlawful

There are a number of situations in which it is not unlawful to discriminate on grounds of sex.

Charities

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

Housing

Communal accommodation

It is not unlawful to discriminate on grounds of a person’s sex in the provision of some types of communal accommodation, for example, a women’s refuge. Communal accommodation is defined as:-

  • accommodation which includes dormitories or shared sleeping facilities which, for reasons of privacy or decency, should be used by one sex only; and
  • accommodation which should be used by one sex only because of the toilet and washing facilities available.

‘Small dwellings’ exception

It is not unlawful to discriminate on grounds of a person’s sex in a ‘small dwelling’ or for sub-letting accommodation where:-

  • the proprietor or a close relative is also living there; and
  • there is shared accommodation with other people living there; and
  • there is not normally accommodation for more than two households as well as the proprietor’s own, or six people in addition to the proprietor.

Insurance

It is not unlawful for an insurance company to discriminate on the grounds of a person’s sex when the company is assessing risk, provided that the company can show that:-

  • it can provide information to justify the discrimination; and
  • the information was obtained from a reliable source; and
  • the discrimination is reasonable in relation to the information available.

Examples of legitimate discrimination would be:-

in the case of life assurance, women and men have different life expectancies and can therefore be charged different rates

in the case of travel insurance, a woman who is pregnant may be refused cover on the grounds that she is not considered fit to travel.

Private clubs

It is not unlawful for a genuine private members’ club to discriminate on the grounds of someone's sex in the way that it treats its members. A private members’ club is one which not only in theory, but also in practice, operates a system of proposing and seconding new members, followed by consideration of the acceptability of their applications by a club committee. Examples are working men’s clubs, golf and bowling clubs, and gentlemen’s clubs. For information about discrimination in other clubs and pubs -see under heading Where sex discrimination is unlawful.

It is not unlawful for a club to have different types of membership which are restricted to one sex only. An example would be a club that has ‘full’ membership for men, with full voting rights and other privileges, and ‘associate’ membership for women, with more restricted rights. However, it may be possible to argue that the club’s constitution should be amended to end this discrimination. The Equality Commission (ECNI) may be able to help you if you are attempting to secure a change - see under heading Sources of help.

Employment in private clubs

Private clubs cannot discriminate against employees on grounds of sex. They are covered by sex discrimination and equal pay legislation in relation to employment and equal pay - see under heading Where sex discrimination is unlawful.

Sport

It is not unlawful to limit participation in some sporting events to one sex only, provided physical strength, stamina or physique is important in the particular sport to the extent that, for example, a woman would be at a competitive disadvantage to a man.

It is not unlawful to discriminate on sex grounds in situations where a member of one sex might object to physical contact with a person of the opposite sex. For example, it is legitimate for a self-defence class to restrict itself to women participants.

It is not unlawful for a genuinely private members’ sporting club to discriminate on grounds of sex -see under heading Where sex discrimination is not unlawful.

Positive discrimination

The law against sex discrimination does not allow positive discrimination in favour of one sex. For example, it is unlawful to discriminate in favour of a woman in recruitment or promotion on the grounds that women have previously been adversely affected by discrimination. However, positive action is allowed - see below.

Positive action

The law against sex discrimination does allow positive action in favour of one sex, particularly in training and advertising. Positive action is intended to redress the effects of previous unequal opportunities by providing special encouragement to the minority sex without actively discriminating against the majority sex. Examples of positive action are:-

  • a training agency may use positive action if it appears that very few or no people of one sex have been engaged in a particular kind of work over the past twelve months
  • an employer who has very few, or no employees of one sex engaged in a particular job, or in management positions, may use positive action to provide training for that work to employees of the minority sex only
  • a trade union or political party is allowed to use positive action to ensure that members of both sexes are represented at all levels of the organisation. A trade union can, for example, reserve seats on a committee for one sex where it is under represented.

Taking action about sex discrimination

When taking action about sex discrimination, you do not have to demonstrate that there was an intention to discriminate against you. It is merely necessary to show that discrimination took place.

When taking action under legislation against sex discrimination, a comparison must normally be made between how a woman has been treated and how a man has been treated. However, if a woman cannot identify a man who is being treated, or has been treated, more favourably, she can still take a case if she can show that a man would have been treated more favourably.

Sexuality

The law on sex discrimination does not cover discrimination because of your sexuality. There is a separate law which protects you from discrimination because of your sexuality.

If you think you have been discriminated against because of your sexuality, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Transgender people

The law protects transgender people against sex discrimination in employment and vocational training and in the provision of housing, goods, facilities or services (but not education). Harassment because of gender reassignment is also against the law.

It is against the law to discriminate against transgender people who intend to undergo gender reassignment, who already have undergone, or who are currently undergoing gender reassignment. If you are in this situation and are treated less favourably on these grounds, you can claim sex discrimination.

Courses of action

If you think you have suffered sex discrimination there are a number of courses of action you can take. These include:

  • negotiating with the person or body that discriminated against you; and/or
  • using a grievance procedure; and/or
  • taking legal action not related to the Sex Discrimination Act; and/or
  • taking your own individual case under the Sex Discrimination Act; and/or
  • giving details to the Equality Commission (see under heading Sources of help).

If you are an employee and you think you have suffered sex discrimination at work, you may need to raise a written grievance with your employer before you can make a claim to an employment tribunal For more information, see Resolving disputes at work in Northern Ireland.

Any course of action is likely to be complicated, could include confrontation and may involve court action. If you are contemplating action you should consult 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.

Education cases

You can make a complaint about discrimination by a school, college or Education and Library Board in your local county court. However, if you want to do this, there are certain steps you have to follow.

If your complaint is about a state school, you must tell the relevant government department (see below) that you are taking court action. You must do this before taking court action, and you must do it within six months of the date when the discrimination first took place. You must start court action within two months of telling the government department that you are doing this. If you want to complain about a private school, you should get advice from the Equality Commission first - see under heading Sources of help.

Northern Ireland

Permanent Under-Secretary of State
Department of Education
Rathgael House
Balloo Road
Bangor
BT19 2PR

Tel: 028 9127 9000
Fax: 028 9127 9779
Website: www.deni.gov.uk

Other types of discrimination

As well as sex discrimination, you could be treated unfairly for other reasons because:

  • of your race, ethnic origin or nationality
  • you're lesbian or gay
  • you're disabled
  • of your age
  • of your religion.

For more information about race discrimination, see Taking action about race discrimination in Northern Ireland.

For more information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination in Northern Ireland.

For more information about discrimination at work because of your age, see Age discrimination at work.

Sources of help

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Equality Commission
Equality House
7-9 Shaftesbury Square
Belfast
BT2 7DP

Tel: 028 9050 0600
Fax: 028 9024 8687
Textphone: 028 9024 0589
E-mail: information@equalityni.org
Website: www.equalityni.org

Law centres

The law centre can offer free legal advice if you want to take a case for sex discrimination in relation to employment. Details of the nearest law centre are below:

124 Donegall Street
Belfast
BT1 2GY

Tel: 028 9024 4401
Fax: 028 9023 6340
E-mail: admin.belfast@lawcentreni.org
Website: www.lawcentreni.org

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

Information in other languages

The Equality commission produces information on sex discrimination in different languages which you can access by visiting www.equalityni.org.

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