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15 Equal Opportunities

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1. Introduction

2. When discrimination can happen

3. Types of discrimination

4. Sex discrimination

Two laws aim to make sure that men and women are treated equally:

  • The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (as amended 1986) makes it unlawful to discriminate against men or women in employment, education, housing or providing goods and services, and also in advertisements for these things. It’s also against the law, but only in work-related matters, to discriminate against someone because they are married or in a civil partnership.
  • The Equal Pay Act 1970 (as amended 1984) says that women must be paid the same as men when they are doing the same (or broadly similar) work, work rated as equivalent under a job evaluation scheme or work of equal value. European law also says that women and men should receive equal pay for equal work. For more about this, see ‘Equal pay’.

Applying for a job

The Sex Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for an employer, when filling a job vacancy, to discriminate because of your sex or because you're married. The law covers three areas:

  • When deciding who should be offered the job. This includes the job description, the ‘person specification’ (the description of the skills, experience and qualifications needed to do the job), the application form, the short-listing process, interviewing and final selection.
  • The terms and conditions of the job, such as pay, holidays or working conditions.
  • Deliberately not considering your application.

The law covers contract and part-time workers as well as full-time or permanent staff.

An example of direct sex discrimination would be refusing to consider you for a job just because you are a woman, or because you are a man (for example, refusing to consider a man for a job as a secretary).

An example of indirect sex discrimination would be saying, without good reason, that everyone applying for a job must be six feet tall. Because fewer women than men are six feet tall, a woman would be less likely to get the job.

Treating a married person less favourably than a single person of the same sex is also unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act. It would be ‘direct marriage discrimination’ if an employer refused to employ a married woman just because they thought she would be more likely than a single woman to leave to have a baby.

‘Indirect marriage discrimination’ could happen if, for example, an employer said that everyone applying for a job must move to a new location, unless the employer could show that moving was essential to the job. This is because a married person would be likely to find it harder than a single person to satisfy this requirement.

When an employer is allowed to discriminate

In some cases employers are allowed to offer a job only to men, or only to women. This is called a ‘genuine occupational qualification’ (GOQ). The main cases where an employer may do this are:

  • for privacy and decency: for example, employing a male care assistant because he has to help men dress or use the toilet;
  • for personal welfare services: for example, employing women counsellors for a women’s welfare charity;
  • where the employee has to live on work premises and there aren’t separate sleeping areas for men and women;
  • for some jobs in single-sex institutions, such as hospitals and prisons;
  • for some jobs in private homes, such as a live-in carer;
  • where the job has a real physical need, such as to model women’s clothing, or for a role in a play or other performance;
  • in some cases, where the job is outside the UK; and
  • where the job requires a married couple.

However, an employer may not, for example, use a need for strength or stamina in a job as a reason for not looking at applications from women.

Being dismissed or made redundant

An employer may not discriminate against women or men when dismissing people or making them redundant. This means that, for example, it would be against discrimination laws for an employer to:

  • dismiss a man if he took time off work to care for a sick child, if they wouldn’t have dismissed a woman for the same reason;
  • dismiss someone for often being late for work if they didn't dismiss someone of the opposite sex who was late just as often; or
  • have a company policy which says that staff with the shortest length of service are the first in line for redundancy, because women are more likely to have taken a career break for family reasons.

For more information about your rights if you are dismissed, or facing redundancy, see the Gurkha Free Legal Advice leaflet,‘ ’.

Having a child

It is against the law for an employer to treat a woman unfavourably because she is pregnant or has taken maternity leave; for example, if she is:

  • dismissed or made redundant;
  • refused promotion;
  • moved to a less rewarding job when she comes back to work after having a baby; or
  • treated differently (worse) in some other way.

It may also breach discrimination laws if a woman is treated unfavourably because she needs to care for her child, for example, if a breast-feeding mother was told she could come back to work only if she worked fixed full-time hours. The employer would have to show that she really needed to work fulltime and that, for example, she could not do part of her job at home.

Equal pay

The Equal Pay Act allows you to claim equal pay for work which is the same or broadly similar (known as ‘like work’) to that done by someone of the opposite sex working for the same employer (known as the ‘comparator’). It also allows you to claim equal pay if the work is quite different, but is of ‘equal value’ to the comparator’s job in terms of the demands on you or if your work has been rated the same under a job evaluation scheme.

The Equal Pay Act also covers most other terms of your employment, for example:

  • working hours;
  • holidays;
  • sick pay; and
  • pensions.

Most equal-pay complaints are by women, but the law also applies to men who are paid less than women for equal work. If you believe you are not being paid the same as someone else of the opposite sex for equal work, you should first take up your complaint with your employer through their grievance procedure.

If that doesn’t work, you can take an equal-pay claim to an employment tribunal. If the jobs being compared are fairly similar, it is usually best to make a ‘like-work’ claim as well as an ‘equal-value’ claim. The tribunal will examine your like-work claim first and, if that fails, it will go on to consider the equal-value claim.

Making a ‘like-work’ or ‘equal-value’ claim can be complicated. Even if the tribunal decides that you are doing like-work or equal-value work, the employer may be able to convince them that there is a ‘material factor’ (a good reason other than your sex) why you are paid less. You can get more details and advice about the process from the Equal Opportunities Commission (see ‘Further help’ for details).

You can get advice and support about taking a claim from your union, if you have one, or from a law centre, Citizens Advice Bureau or solicitor (see ‘Further help’ for details).

Part-time work

The Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act cover all workers, including people who work:

  • part-time; or
  • on casual or temporary contracts.

In an equal-pay claim, a part-time job can be compared with a similar full-time job on a pro-rata basis (that is, based on the number of hours each of you work).

Because most part-time workers are women, if they are treated worse than full-time workers, this could amount to indirect discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act. You may have a claim for indirect discrimination if you want to work part-time (or flexitime, at home or in a job-share), because, for example, you need to care for a child, and your employer refuses without a good reason.

Part-time workers are also protected by the Part-Time Workers Regulations 2000, which give them the right to the same pro-rata contractual benefits (rates of pay, holidays and access to training, for example) as full-time workers doing the same work.It is also unlawful for an employer to treat you less favourably (for example, by dismissing you) because you work part-time.

Similar rights apply to workers with fixed-term contracts under the Fixed-Term Employee Regulations 2002. In both these cases, it doesn’t matter whether the workers being compared are the same sex or not. For more on this, see the Gurkha Free Legal Advice leaflet, ‘’.

Sexual harassment

You are protected against harassment at work and during work-related training. Harassment could include:

  • comments about the way you look;
  • indecent (offensive) remarks;
  • requests for sex (perhaps in return for a promotion or other benefit).

It is also unlawful for your employer to treat you less favourably because you have been harassed or tried to stop someone harassing you. For example, your employer would be breaking the law if they refused you a promotion because you had objected to someone commenting about your appearance or because you had been harassed.

If someone is harassing you and they don’t stop when you ask them to (or if you are afraid to confront them), you should tell your employer – unless, of course, they are the person doing it.

The law says that employers are responsible for discrimination by their employees. Many employers treat sexual harassment by their staff as a disciplinary offence, and they should discipline the person harassing you. If your employer does nothing (or not enough to solve the problem), then you can take a claim against them to an employment tribunal. In many cases you could also take the person harassing you to an employment tribunal.

If you are having a relationship with someone at work

Some employers won’t employ:

  • the husband or wife;
  • the partner; or
  • a relative;

of someone working for them.

Also, some employers don’t allow workplace ‘affairs’. Employers are not breaking the Sex Discrimination Act in doing this as long as they treat men, women, married and unmarried staff equally. Otherwise it could be considered discrimination. An example of discrimination is if a woman was transferred to another office or department when she didn’t want to be, because she was having a relationship at work, when a man would not have been transferred in the same circumstances.

Discrimination after leaving your job

An employer must not discriminate against you after you have left your job. For example, it is unlawful for your employer to refuse to give you a reference because you had complained about being discriminated against while you were employed.

If you are buying or renting a house or flat

It is illegal to discriminate against someone because of their sex when selling or letting a house or flat. It is also illegal for a landlord to treat tenants differently because of their sex. However, the Sex Discrimination Act doesn’t apply if the landlord (or a close relative of theirs) lives in the same building and shares some of the living areas (including a kitchen or bathroom, but not a hall or stairway) with the tenant.

It’s also illegal for a bank or building society to treat someone less favourably in granting a loan because of their sex or because they are pregnant. If, for example, a couple apply for a joint mortgage and the woman earns more than the man, then the lender must use the woman's income as the higher one in working out how much they will lend. And offering mortgages only to people who work full-time is also seen as discrimination, because more women than men work part-time.

Going to school or university

Mixed-sex schools, colleges, adult education centres and universities must not discriminate against parents or children because of their sex. For example, careers advisors must provide advice and help in the same way to boys as girls. Single-sex schools must not restrict the types of subjects they teach just because they have only boys or only girls as pupils. Schools and colleges must also deal with sexual harassment in the same way that employers do (see ‘Sexual harassment’).

If you feel your child is facing sex discrimination at school, you should first try to discuss the problem with the teacher or headteacher. If that doesn’t work, you should complain to the school governors or the local education authority.

For advice about dealing with this kind of problem, contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Advisory Centre for Education (see ‘Further help’ for details). For more information about legal rights at school, see the Gurkha Free Legal Advice leaflet, ‘’.

Buying and using goods and services

Under the Sex Discrimination Act it is against the law for businesses to discriminate against men or women in the ‘goods, facilities and services’ they provide. This means refusing a service or deliberately not providing it on the same terms and of the same quality. The Act covers things that are free or paid-for, and applies to:

  • shops;
  • public places, such as hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and leisure centres (for example, offering only to women free or cheaper admission or drinks would breach the Sex Discrimination Act);
  • bank accounts, loans, credit cards and insurance;
  • travel and transport services that are public or offered by private companies or travel agents; and
  • services supplied by local authorities (such as leisure services).

Discrimination against men or women may be allowed in certain situations:

  • private members’ clubs;
  • services that are only for men or only for women, to avoid ‘serious embarrassment’ (for example, women-only saunas);
  • voluntary organisations, care homes and charities that provide services only for men or only for women; and
  • insurance policies where it can be shown that women are a better or a worse insurance risk than men (though this is being reviewed, and may not be allowed in the future).

5. Transgender people

6. Discrimination because you are gay or lesbian

7. Discrimination because of your religion or beliefs

8. Discrimination because of your age

9. What you can do about discrimination

10. Dealing with discrimination at work

11. Going to an employment tribunal

12. Dealing with other types of discrimination

13. The Human Rights Act

14. Further help

15. About this leaflet


This leaflet was published by the Gurkha Free Legal Advice (LSC). It was written in association with Sara Leslie

Leaflet Version: December 2007

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