Female economist denied promotion wins sex discrimination case

Experts highlight importance of removing protected characteristic information from applications, as tribunal finds ex-employer had history of ‘favouritism’ towards men

A woman has been awarded £19,000 after a Cardiff employment tribunal found her former employer denied giving her a promotion because of her gender.

The tribunal found Olwen Renowden (pictured above), who missed out on a promotion to a male candidate despite being better qualified, was a victim of “favouritism” towards male staff within the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

She told People Management other employers should carefully track their own diversity outcomes and scrutinise promotion “barriers” where women get stuck at a certain pay grade.

“A key theme for me is that employers track graduate diversity. But bias and discrimination kicks in as you start trying for promotion in childbearing years around 30-plus,” she said.

“Employers need to track diversity outcomes in temporary promotions, in development schemes that give some enhanced work experience over others, and look at promotion barriers where women get stuck’.”

Renowden added at least five other women could have been added to her claim, but as the only trade union member she was the only one who had the support to take her case to tribunal. She said without trade membership, progress on diversity was at a “snail’s pace because there are no mechanisms for holding public sector employers to account”. 

An ONS spokesperson said the organisation “values the contributions of all its people and is continually working to support everyone in progressing their careers”. They added the ONS are considering the ruling “very carefully”.

Renowden joined the ONS as a grade 7 economist in August 2016, and had previously worked in London at the higher level grade 6 – the most senior grade below the senior civil service. She also had experience from the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund.

The tribunal heard gender balance among economists in the ONS was “out of kilter”. Court documents showed women made up 37 per cent of the total grade 7 employees, compared to just 20 per cent of the higher grade 6. 

In February 2017 the ONS advertised two grade 6 posts – one based in London and the other in Newport. Renowden applied for the role in Newport, but was not invited to an interview because she fell below the minimum requirement in the “application of economics” competency test. 

The tribunal heard one of the two members of the recruitment panel, Richard Heys, was aware Renowden had ADHD and understood it impacted her concentration and ability to assimilate information. He had given her a sufficiently high score to attend interview, but was persuaded by the other panel member, Ed Palmer, to reduce that score. 

Renowden was rejected for the role in April 2017 with no explanation, and the ONS announced both jobs had been given to male economists in June 2017 – both of whom had less experience in economics, and a lower level of specialism in macro-economics, compared to Renowden.

Renowden raised a grievance about these matters, and the ONS conducted a “significant” investigation that found other women were concerned about the gender imbalance, the relative length of service before promotion between men and women, and the informal temporary promotion system. 

But the investigation concluded although all the women interviewed “detailed some bad practices which has led to them feeling undervalued and demoralised”, there was no discrimination proven. 

Renowden unsuccessfully appealed the grievance outcome, and subsequently resigned in August 2018, indicating she did not think she had a future with the ONS. 

She brought her case to tribunal, and Judge Beard agree “favouritism” existed toward male staff in the ONS. He added their “approach to gender balance on the selection panels… pointed towards a general culture where discrimination and, in particular, sex discrimination, is not properly understood by those who are required to ensure its elimination”. 

The tribunal found Renowden’s claims of sex discrimination succeeded, and the ONS was ordered to pay £19,000 in compensation for injury to feelings.

Paul Holcroft, associate director of Croner, said the decision reminds HR of the importance of following internal processes when carrying out recruitment procedures, whether it is for a new recruit or an internal promotion.

“A failure to meet diversity promises, such as having gender-balanced panels or altering processes as a reasonable adjustment for disabled candidates, can cast doubt on the fairness and lawfulness of the final decision,” he said. 

Holcroft suggested recruiters remove any information linked to protected characteristics from  applications, including name, gender and date of birth, as this “focuses the mind of decision makers on the objective information” relating to job description and person specification for the role.