Why sex discrimination claims aren’t just for women

16 Aug 2018 By Joanne Holborn

Joanne Holborn analyses a recent sex discrimination case brought by a male police officer, and offers tips to employers on avoiding such claims

In what is thought to have been the first case where a male police officer has sued his police force over alleged sex discrimination, a Metropolitan Police chief, Mr Denby, was awarded £870,000 after winning his discrimination claim at the employment tribunal (a ruling later upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal). 

The employment tribunal found Mr Denby’s case "striking in its unfairness", principally as female counterparts had not been treated in the same way. The irony of this case is that the Met chief’s discrimination occurred as part of a crackdown to avoid discrimination in the workplace.

Historically, there is no doubt that women have suffered most from inequalities, and recent gender pay gap reporting and the #MeToo movement only highlight how far we still have to go. 

Yet as the Denby case demonstrates, while trying to eradicate discrimination against women, you need to careful not to inadvertently discriminate against another group of people – men. 

We may see a rise in male discrimination cases. In 2016, Acas warned employers about making assumptions regarding flexible working requests. “An employer should not assume a male employee is less likely to want flexibility for child care responsibilities outside of work,” its guidance states. 

In Capita Customer Management Ltd v Ali, a case brought under the new shared parental leave laws, a father initially successfully sued his employer for failing to give him full paternity leave rights, however this decision was overturned by the EAT. 

With more male discrimination cases slowly making the headlines, what should employers do to ensure they don’t fall foul of discrimination laws in relation to men? 

Flexible working

It is easy it is to make assumptions – for example, that flexible working primarily relates to working mums, yet we mustn’t lose track of the number of working dads who are entitled to the same level of flexibility. It’s important that gender stereotypes don’t lead to fathers being overlooked. Any business that makes an assumption that requests from men for flexible working are easier to turn down could find itself at risk of facing a sex discrimination claim. 

Addressing the gender imbalance

Many businesses are seeking to address gender imbalances within their organisations, but there is a fine line between encouraging more women to apply for a role and positively discriminating against men. While it is fine to actively welcome applicants from a specific group of people, the application process itself must be transparent and fair.

Male or female dominated environments 

Historically, women have not been considered for a wide variety of roles that have been considered a man’s domain – STEM-related careers in particular. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this can just as easily happen to men in female dominated environments, so it is important that men aren’t overlooked for roles that have typically been a woman’s domain. 

In some cases, male dominated working environments have proved challenging for women. Yet female dominated environments can prove equally challenging for men. Eurofound’s 2015 European Working Conditions Survey found that discrimination against men appears to be more concentrated in female dominated contexts. So if you have a predominantly female workforce, you should be alert to anything that could be perceived as discriminatory towards your male employees. 

Paternity leave

With the new shared parental leave laws giving greater rights to fathers, businesses must make sure they are adhering to these laws when requests for leave are made. Therefore, if you haven’t already reviewed your policies, it would be timely to do so now. 

No business seeks to discriminate against any employees. But there has been a big shift in workplace culture which has, quite rightly, seen a change in emphasis to those groups that have traditionally been marginalised. It’s important to make sure that the values of your organisation are applied equally to all employees and that your organisation is aware that we all carry unconscious biases and take steps to eliminate these as far as is possible. 

Joanne Holborn is head of employment at Baines Wilson

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