Business Law & Compliance

How to handle gender discrimination in the workplace

5 min read

02 June 2015

In a recent US legal case, lawyer Ellen Pao took her Silicon Valley employers to court over claims of sexism, lost her case and was ordered to pay legal costs of nearly £660,000. She argued that she was subjected to a sexually charged atmosphere, denied promotion and then dismissed because of her gender.

While Pao may have lost her case, media attention in the aftermath has renewed debates about equality in the workplace. It is sad to see that even in 2015, many women can relate to Pao’s experiences. The issue is certainly not confined to the US, as here in the UK we regularly see female clients who have suffered discrimination and been held back by old fashioned views of women in the workplace

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently shared her own experiences stating that “for women, success and likeability are negatively correlated. As a woman gets more successful and more powerful, she is less liked”.

A recent UK survey of 1,500 female office workers by Business Environment concluded that gender discrimination is still as prevalent now as it was 20 years ago. Over a quarter of those surveyed stated that they had experienced some form of gender discrimination at work, suggesting that sexism remains a major issue in the workplace.

 So what impact does this have on employers, and how can they take steps to prevent it happening?

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees because of their gender. This includes the whole recruitment process (whether or not the candidate is successful) as well as once employment is underway. Employers are also legally responsible for preventing discrimination, both directly by the employer, but also by other members of staff. This means that they will be accountable for the actions of their other employees unless they can prove that they have done everything reasonably within their power to prevent discriminatory behaviour.

Read more about gender discrimination:

A practical and effective strategy for employers is to ensure that a non­-discriminatory culture is one of the core values of their business. Getting the foundations right is crucial, and this means comprehensive staff policies, handbooks and procedures covering the entire employment process from selection and recruitment right through to retirement. A good induction process will communicate the company culture and policies, explain how to access them and reinforce the behaviour that is expected from new staff. Policies are just bits of paper if they aren’t followed though, so line managers should be trained to identify potential discriminatory behaviour and take steps to eliminate it.

If an employee feels that they are being unfairly treated because of their gender, the first step should be an informal discussion with the employer to explain what they see as the problem. If the employee’s concerns aren’t resolved early on, they will usually submit a grievance using the employer’s formal grievance procedure, at which point there is no choice but to deal with the issue formally. An employee should never be victimised for raising a complaint, as this would count as discrimination and make matters worse. 

The employer should take any allegation seriously and carry out a proper investigation. Dealing with a grievance is usually a sensitive matter so an experienced manager should be chosen who can handle it fairly and professionally. There should also be an appeal process to review decisions if requested by either party.

There is no upper limit to UK Employment Tribunal awards in discrimination cases, and the two year qualifying period of employment doesn’t apply, so employers risk paying substantial awards. Employees can also sue their colleagues as well as their employer which can be very costly to the individuals involved.

In conclusion, it goes without saying that employers should take all reasonable steps to minimise the risk of gender discrimination in the workplace. Following these guidelines is a great start, but if the worst should happen we recommend taking specialist professional advice. If a solution can be found that satisfies all parties then a working relationship may be saved and a great deal of wasted time and cost avoided.

Minal Backhouse is managing director of Backhouse Solicitors.

Know any inspirational females? The First Women Awards is the UK’s premium awards programme focused on senior-level business women and professionals, which will take place on 11 June in London. The awards are hosted by the CBI and Real Business, and are held in association with Lloyds Banking Group.

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