Law guide: Workplace

See how we helped Liz

"It's not just a website... there are people there on call who can help answer your queries."

Liz W, London

Sex discrimination and equal pay

Sex discrimination and equal pay

Sex discrimination and equal pay

The rights set out in this section apply to all categories of staff who may work in a business, including workers, employees, contractors, partners or a director, but not volunteers. It doesn't matter how many hours you work to be protected by anti-discrimination legislation. For more information, see Employees, workers and the self-employed.

Sex discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 provides that your employer can't treat you less favourably than others because of your sex.

Equal pay

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate between men and women in relation to their pay and other terms of remuneration in their contract of employment, where they are doing the same or similar work. The Act implies certain terms into a woman's employment contract, to ensure that the woman will have the same pay, benefits and favourable terms as a man who is doing similar work that is of the same value.

Employers who lose an equal pay claim or pay-related sex-discrimination claim at a tribunal might have to carry out an 'equal pay audit' and publish it on their website for 3 years.

What is covered?

The laws against sex discrimination at work cover every part of employment. This includes recruitment, terms and conditions of employment, pay and benefits, status, training, promotion and transfer opportunities, as well as redundancy, dismissal and non-renewal of fixed term contracts, and post-employment issues.

Sex discrimination in the workplace is unlawful in all aspects of employment, including the recruitment process, status, training, promotion and transfer opportunities, redundancy, dismissal and even post-employment.


In some cases, however, a job can be offered to someone of a particular sex without it amounting to unlawful discrimination, if there is a genuine 'occupational requirement'. Examples could include:

  • Some jobs in single-sex schools
  • Jobs in some welfare services
  • Acting jobs that need a man or a woman
  • Where the job needs to be held by a particular gender to preserve a level of decency or privacy, such as where the job will involve some physical contact and people might object to the opposite sex.
  • Where the job might require the worker to live in accommodation provided for by the employer and the only accommodation available is for people of a particular gender.
  • Where the job is to be performed in a country where women are not allowed to perform those duties.

Types of sex discrimination

Direct sex discrimination

This is where your employer treats you less favourably because of your sex when compared with another worker of the opposite sex who shares the same or similar (but not materially different) circumstances as you (known as a 'comparator').

The comparator's circumstances do not need to be identical to yours (in terms of the type of job, job level, job experience and seniority, etc.) but must not be wholly dissimilar. If you cannot find a suitable comparator then a 'hypothetical comparator' can be used instead, who would be deemed to have the same employment as you (such as your title, role, level, etc.). An Employment Tribunal has the power to decide the particular circumstances of a hypothetical comparator (such as their personality).

The law also extends to protecting you if your employer treats you less favourably based on:

  • Their perception of your sex, regardless of whether or not the perception is correct.
  • The sex of another person (also known as discrimination by association). Such instances would involve you being treated less favourably because you live with someone of a particular sex or because you were dismissed after refusing to comply with instructions that would require you to discriminate against someone because of their sex.

Your employer could be liable for a direct discrimination claim even if there was no intention to discriminate against you.

It also may occur if a recruitment decision contains a discriminatory statement, even when there's not an active recruitment process underway and no identifiable victim.

Your employer can't defend a direct sex discrimination claim by justifying it (arguing that their actions were a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim). The only defence would be to prove that there was no sex discrimination.

Indirect sex discrimination

You will be subjected to this where certain working practices, provisions or criteria that apply to all workers, place some of them at a particular disadvantage compared to other workers because of their sex. A worker in the disadvantaged group must also actually suffer that particular disadvantage.

For example, an employer setting a minimum height for a particular position, which puts most women at a disadvantage, would be indirect sexual discrimination if you are a woman and would have been eligible to apply for that position, had it not been for that provision.

It also applies if you're not in the group that suffers the disadvantage, but you also suffer a disadvantage alongside the workers with the protected characteristic.

Indirect sex discrimination would not be unlawful if your employer can justify it by showing that the working practices, provisions or criteria which are being applied is a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim.

Your employer could be held liable for indirect sex discrimination even if they did not intend to discriminate against you.


Harassment is unwanted conduct (including conduct of a sexual nature) towards a worker by an employer or another worker, because of that worker's actual or perceived sex, or association with someone of a particular sex. This applies to any conduct that violates a worker's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, degrading or offensive environment, even if it was not intended as such.

Unlawful sex harassment will also occur if an employer treats a worker less favourably because they have rejected or submitted to any unwanted conduct.

Workers who are not the subject of the unwanted conduct will also be able to make harassment claims for behaviour that they find offensive, even if they do not have a protected characteristic.

Furthermore, the unwanted conduct will be harassment even where it was not intended to be harassing. If it is reasonable to regard the unwanted conduct as having a harassing effect, it may be unlawful.

For example, making sexual remarks or gestures, allowing displays or distribution of sexually explicit material, or referring to people of a particular sex by a potentially offensive nickname, could all result in unlawful harassment.

Note that you will not be protected if you are over sensitive and unreasonably take offence to an innocent comment.

Employers will be liable for any acts of harassment undertaken by their workers in the course of their employment – whether they knew about it or not – if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it. 'In the course of employment' means 'done to you whilst at work' or 'done to you during work time'. Employers can't defend a claim of harassment by showing that they did not authorise it or on the grounds that the actions were reasonable or warranted.

An employer can escape liability for harassment if it took reasonable practicable steps to prevent it.


Victimisation happens when you are being treated less favourably because:

  • You have asserted your rights not to be discriminated against based on your sex by making a complaint about sex discrimination
  • You gave evidence in a complaint of sex discrimination
  • You did anything else under the Equality Act
  • You alleged that someone has contravened the provisions regarding sex discrimination in the Equality Act
  • Your employer believes that you have done or may do any of these things

For example, if, because you have taken one of the above actions, you are prevented from going on training courses, or unfair disciplinary action is taken against you, or you are excluded from company social events, you might be subjected to victimisation.

Positive action

Positive action in training and applying for particular positions

If an employer reasonably thinks that a group of its workers who share a protected characteristic (race, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, disability or religion or belief) either...

  • suffer a disadvantage connected to their protected characteristic,
  • have needs that are different from the needs of those who do not have their protected characteristic, or
  • have a disproportionately low participation in an activity, such as partaking in training activities, doing particular work or filling particular posts in an employer's workforce,

...then the employer can take any proportionate action which, either; enables or encourages the group of workers to overcome or minimise their disadvantage; meets their needs; or enables or encourages them to participate in the activity.

Employers are allowed to provide special training to members of the group. They can also encourage members of the group to apply to do particular work or fill posts (for example, by saying that applications from them will be particularly welcome).

This does not mean that employers can discriminate in favour of the members of the group when it comes to choosing people to do the work or fill the posts, unless they meet the circumstances described below under 'Positive action in recruitment and for promotions', as that could be unlawful discrimination.

Positive action is not the same as 'positive discrimination', which is where members of a particular group who have a protected characteristic are treated more favourably regardless of the circumstances.

Positive action in recruitment and for promotions

The Equality Act makes it lawful for employers to take positive action when recruiting and making internal promotions in order to overcome a disadvantage connected with a protected characteristic or where the inclusion of people with the protected characteristic in a particular activity is disproportionately low. Employers will be able take positive action where all the following apply:

  • There are two equally qualified candidates to choose between
  • An employer does not have a policy of treating persons with the protected characteristic more favourably
  • Positively discriminating is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

The Act does not require employers to take positive action and it is therefore voluntary.

Positive discrimination

Positive discrimination is unlawful except if used when recruiting or promoting individuals in the limited circumstances described above.

What to do next

If you think that you're suffering sex discrimination at work, you should talk to your employer and explain why you feel discriminated against. If necessary, put your complaint in writing. An employee representative (such as a trade union official) may be able to help you. Your employer may have an equal opportunities policy - ask to see it.

If this doesn't help, you should make a complaint using your employer's grievance procedure. If your employer doesn't have a grievance procedure, you should set out your complaint in a letter and hand it to your line manager (if any). If your line manager is the problem, then hand your letter to your HR manager or the person your line manager reports to. Your employer should then arrange a grievance meeting with you. If the outcome of the meeting is unsatisfactory, you have the right to appeal to a manager who was not previously involved in your grievance. For more information, see our article on Grievance procedures in England, Wales and Scotland.

If you're still unhappy, you can, in certain cases, apply to an Employment Tribunal. Before you do this you must obtain legal advice. You need to apply within three months of the act of discrimination taking place. If the discrimination extends over a period, you must bring your claim to the Employment Tribunal within 3 months from the end of that period. It is advisable to obtain legal advice if you wish to proceed with a claim to an Employment Tribunal.

In the case of an equal pay claim you can take your claim to the Employment Tribunal at any time during the time that you remain in the employment to which your equal pay claim relates. If, however, you leave the employment to which your equal pay claim relates, then you have six months within which to bring your claim, calculated from the last day that you were employed.

Further information

See the Acas guide for employers and employees on discrimination, bullying and harassment. Acas offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.

Copyright © 2024 Epoq Group Ltd. All trademarks acknowledged, all rights reserved

This website is operated by Epoq Legal Ltd, registered in England and Wales, company number 3707955, whose registered office is at 2 Imperial Place, Maxwell Road, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, WD6 1JN. Epoq Legal Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA number 645296).

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We would also like to set some optional cookies. We won't set these optional cookies unless you enable them. Please choose whether this site may use optional cookies by selecting 'On' or 'Off' for each category below. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Cookie notice.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Functionality cookies

We'd like to set cookies to provide you with a better customer experience. For more information on these cookies, please see our cookie notice.