Legal insight: sex discrimination

Sex discrimination and sexual harassment: the law

What counts as sex discrimination?
It is against the law for an employer to discriminate against a worker because of her (or his) sex.

For example:

  • Stereotyping someone because of her sex, such as assuming a woman with children will be unreliable and less committed to her job.
  • Not promoting a woman because the employer assumes she will not want the extra travelling involved with the new job.
  • Paying a man a higher bonus because the employer thinks he would make a fuss whereas a woman would accept what she is offered.
  • Not offering a man flexible working because the employer assumes his partner is the main carer for their children

Discrimination law protects job applicants as well as employees. So if you  are turned down for a job because of your sex, this is discrimination. For example if you are not offered a job because the interviewer thought you might take maternity leave in the future.

It is important to remember that treating a woman less favourably is only discrimination if it is done because of her sex. It is not enough for there to be less favourable treatment and a difference of sex.

What is sexual harassment?

There are two types of sexual harassment.

  • Unwanted conduct on the grounds of your sex

This is harassment of you because you are a woman, but it is not sexual in itself. An example could be if a woman is bullied at work and the bully would not treat a man in the same way.

  • Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature

This is harassment which is sexual in nature. Examples are comments about a worker’s appearance or sex life, or unwanted sexual advances.

In order to be harassment the conduct must have the purpose or effect of violating a worker’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It does not matter if the person intended to harass, it is enough that they have violated a worker’s dignity or caused a hostile environment.

You may also suffer harassment if there is sexist or sexual treatment of another employee, which is offensive to you.

Legal insight’ is provided by Leigh Day & Co solicitors, specialists in employment discrimination. They can be contacted on 0845 099 5586 or by email:  You can also contact The Law Society on 0870 606 2555 for a list of employment solicitors.