Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

  • Discrimination
Sex Discrimination
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Gender discrimination can create significant issues in the workplace. For many reasons, it should be avoided at all costs. Peninsula explains why.

Every employee is protected from discrimination based on their sex.

But sex or gender discrimination doesn’t only apply to women's rights. It applies to everyone. When it comes to sex, you must ensure employees aren’t treated unfairly because of it.

If you ignore their equal rights, it could alienate staff and make them feel undervalued. Employees could raise discrimination claims - leading to fines and brand damage.

In this guide, we'll look at what sex discrimination is, what law applies, and how to promote equality in the workplace.

What is sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination is when you treat a person differently because they’re male or female. It’s sometimes known as gender discrimination. But under employment law, ‘sex’ is legally recognised.

Discrimination relating to sex comes from thoughts, beliefs, and stereotypes. We often hear sex or gender norms like ‘women/ femininity is weaker compared to men/masculinity’.

But these characteristics aren’t defined to you at birth; both are fluid between sexes.

In the workplace, sex discrimination can be found in so many areas. For example:

  • Recruitment: Having a job interview procedure where only men are hired.
  • Training: Not offering training to line-managers who are women.
  • Contract of employment: Not adding menstruations leave to your sickness absence policy.
  • Pay and benefits: Not giving female employees equal pay compared to male colleagues (in the same job).

What are the impacts of sex discrimination?

Sex inequality causes a negative impact to any employee. It can lead to both personal and professional lives being affected. The impacts of sex discrimination include:

Poor mental health

Employees who suffer from sex discrimination are more likely to report sick leave and ill-health.

For example, women are more likely to suffer from poor mental health like stressanxiety, and depression.

Less wages and benefits

In certain jobs, women often receive less wages or benefits compared to men – in the same job. This is known as the gender pay gap.

When the pay gap is significantly lower, employees are more likely to have financial troubles. For example, living on overdrafts or loans.

The wage pay is even more significant when race and national origin are considered.

Injury and death

Sex discrimination can lead to all types of violence, inside and outside the workplace. Sex or gender-based violence is just one example of this.

Acts of physical or sexual violence in the workplace is reported more by women. These sorts of injuries can affect victims throughout their entire lives.

Sometimes, it can even lead to suicides or manslaughter. Employers must report these cases to the police with the employee’s permission.

What is the UK law on sex discrimination?

The Equality Act 2010 states every employee is protected from unlawful discrimination relating to sex. That’s because sex is one of nine protected characteristics.

 Alongside sex, the UK law also includes protection from:

For example, a business advertises a job for a ‘waiter’. This is a form of direct sex discrimination as it gives the impression that the job is only for men.

Or a business only offers Christmas bonuses to full-time employees. Less women will receive the bonus, as more of them work in part-time jobs, compared to men.

When an employee is discriminated because of their sex, the consequences are huge. They could raise legal action to an employment tribunal (ET). If the judge finds you guilty, you could lose staff, pay compensation, and suffer from brand damage.

Can sex discrimination be objectively justified?

Under the UK law, indirect sex discrimination is allowed in some cases. This happens when your reasons are 'objectively justified'.

To prove this, a discriminatory action must show a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. This means you need to prove your reasons for discriminating against a person or group. For example, if it’s for health and safety purposes.

Only a tribunal judge can pass this verdict. An employer cannot use this as a reason themselves.

Are there different types of sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination can be categorised into four types: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation. Let’s dive into each one:

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when an employee is directly treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic, like sex.

For example, an employer gives a promotion to a male employee over a female one. Even though it’s clear that he has less qualifications and experience for the job.

Any women in this situation can claim direct sex discrimination. And it’s the same if the roles were the other way round.

But there are exceptions to direct sex discrimination. For example, a male employee believes that women get special work treatment when they’re pregnant or have given birth. This doesn’t class as direct discrimination as they count as pregnancy or maternity rights.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when a person is treated unfairly by work practices. Indirect sex discrimination often leaves people with fewer opportunities compared to others.

For example, a warehouse company puts out an advert for workers. The advert states workers must be over 6ft tall. Most women will indirectly disqualify for the role, as the height requirement is less common. 

However, the employer’s reasons can be justified objectively for the role. But again, only an employment tribunal judge can pass this judgement.


Harassment is when you experience unwanted conduct or hostility from others. The victim can go through verbal abuse, physical violence, and sexual harassment.

For example, a female manager unnecessary makes physical contact with her male colleagues.

They can also experience unwanted harassment of a sexual nature. For example, a manager makes sexual jokes with female employees.


Victimisation is when a person is bullied or alienated because they raised an issue. Here, the issue raised could relate to sex inequality or injustice.

For example, an employee overhears their boss making fun of female employees. They report it to their HR team, but nothing was done. The next day, their boss bullied them for raising the issue.

How to promote sex equality in the workplace

When it comes to your staff, you must challenge sex discrimination in all its forms. This includes any bias (unconscious, internalised, and implicit) towards all groups.

Employers have a legal duty to promote a workplace where everyone feels valued and equal.

Let’s look at ways to promote sex equality in the workplace:

Be inclusive

Businesses used to think you can promote gender equality by hiring more women. In reality, you need to focus on being more inclusive.

Sex equality applies to men and women. They should both receive fair and equal opportunities during work. Employers should judge them on their individual talents and skills, rather than sex.

When employees feel judged by their sex or gender, it creates a hostile society. And this causes them to feel undervalued and unimportant.

So, make sure employees don’t experience discrimination, harassment, and victimisation at work. And be inclusive of all sexes.

Create an equality and diversity policy

Most businesses have policies that show their work ethics and values.

Another one to create is an equality and diversity policy. This policy helps present your view on promoting equal opportunities for all. And it’s regardless of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The policy should also say how your business will follow anti-discrimination laws. And how you’ll make sure employees are treated fairly at work.

Use gender inclusive language

Not all people identify as a male or female. Or use titles like, 'she/her' and 'he/him'. Employees might have other pronouns they use instead. So, you should use them, too.

For example, a non-binary person may use 'they/ them' as their gender pronouns. That’s because they might not identify as a male or female.

Of course, there are loads of pronouns out there, and it’s hard to keep up with them all. The best place to start is to ask employees what they prefer.

Avoid any gender stereotypes and never presume they’re one sex or the other. This will help build a workplace that accepts all gender identities.

Offer gender equality training

When you reduce any form of sex or gender discrimination, it helps your whole business.

A great way to do this is by offering gender equality training. You can either offer this to all staff or just your managers.

Managers will be able to directly apply equality training into everyday work. They’ll ensure everyone understands the importance of equal opportunities regardless of sex or gender.

Managers will find it easier to follow anti-discrimination rules and grievances procedures. (To deal with their own experiences, as well as other employees).

Get expert advice on sex discrimination with Peninsula

When it comes to equality, you must protect all employees regardless of their sex or gender.

By ending discrimination or prejudices, employees can work in security and comfort. But if employers ignore this, they could face serious troubles. Like losing staff, brand damage, and tribunal hearings.

Peninsula offers expert advice on sex discrimination. Our HR team offer unlimited 24/7 HR employment advice which is available 365 days a year.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.

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