Making Sense of Employment Law – Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Who is protected by sex discrimination law?

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace against individuals in the area of employment. It applies to men and women of any age, including children, and also prohibits employment discrimination against married people. It is not, however, unlawful to discriminate against someone because they are not married.

In July 2003 sex discrimination law (the Sex Discrimination Act) was amended to cover discrimination in cases where the employment relationship had come to an end. The Sex Discrimination Act also extends to people who may not strictly be deemed to be employees – for example, people engaged under contracts for personal service and contract workers. Special provisions apply under the Act to police officers who are office holders rather than employees. The Act also prohibits sex discrimination against individuals in the areas of:

* Education
* The provision of goods, facilities and services
* Disposal or management of premises

Discriminatory adverts are unlawful, but only the Equality and Human Rights Commission can take action against advertisers.

Types of sex discrimination in the workplace

Direct sex discrimination at work

This is where, on the grounds of gender, a woman or man is treated less favourably than a person of the opposite sex is, or would be treated, in comparable circumstances. Types of direct discrimination include sexual harassment and also treating a woman adversely because she is pregnant.

Indirect sex discrimination at work

This is where a condition or practice is applied to both sexes, but adversely affects a considerably larger proportion of one sex than the other and it is not justifiable, irrespective of sex, to apply that condition or practice.

Discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment

The Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations 1999, amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, came into force in May 1999. The regulations expressly prohibit discrimination on the grounds that a person intends to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a gender reassignment. The regulations make specific provision for dealing with an individual’s absence for purposes of undergoing gender reassignment. For example, discrimination occurs if a person is treated less favourably than they would be if the absence was due to sickness or injury, or they are treated less favourably than they would be if the absence is due to some other cause.


If an employer treats any person less favourably than others because that person threatens to bring proceedings, to give evidence or information, to take action or to make any allegations concerning reference to the Sex Discrimination Act or the Equal Pay Act or has already done any of those things, the employer is guilty of discrimination by victimisation. The victimisation may be unintentional.


Harassment occurs where there is conduct which could be regarded as having the effect of causing harassment to an individual. You have to look at all of the circumstances including, in particular, the perception of the alleged victim, to consider whether an action amounts to harassment. A comparator in harassment cases has not been necessary since October 1, 2005.

Want to talk to us?

If you would like to discuss sex discrimination law or for any other information relating to discrimination in the workplace please email Fiona Martin or call your local martin searle solicitors’ office on 01273 609911 (Brighton) or 0208 256 4490 (Croydon).

martin searle solicitors’ employment lawyers have a flexible and pragmatic approach and are committed to helping businesses implement policies and procedures to ensure that relationship runs smoothly. Employees and employers looking for more information about Employment Law or to speak with human resources consultants please visit: