I think I am suffering sex discrimination at work. What can I do?

Sex discrimination can take many different forms. It might be direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, sexual harassment, or victimisation

For example, it can include: 

  • being shouted at; 

  • being called sexist names; 

  • being sent sexist texts or online postings, being forwarded offensive emails, or putting up with sexist imagery at work, such as offensive screensavers; 

  • sexual harassment

  • being denied certain benefits; 

  • being overlooked for promotion and/or training; and 

  • being bullied. 

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is also against the law. 

Find out what policies your employer has in place to protect you and how you might go about raising these issues with management. It might be part of a wider equal opportunities policy. 

Make sure you make a written note of the behaviour you believe to be sexist or discriminatory, when it took place and by whom. Do this on each occasion if it happens more than once. If the behaviour is online, keep a copy of offensive texts, postings, etc. 

Consider talking to work colleagues who you believe may be suffering from similar behaviour. If possible you could approach the problem together. If you are a member of a trade union, talk to your union representative. 

If you feel confident enough, you could talk directly to the people you believe are being sexist or discriminating against you. Explain your feelings and ask them to change their behaviour. They may simply not realise how they come across and may be surprised to discover that their behaviour is sexist and offensive to you. 

If nothing changes, or it is not appropriate to raise it directly, you may have to follow your organisation's policy on sexual discrimination. If your organisation does not have a specific policy, you may have to use your organisation's grievance procedure. You have a legal right to be accompanied at the hearing of your grievance. 

Speak to your rep about the best way forward. Unions have been working for many years to combat sex discrimination in the workplace and have plenty of expertise and knowledge of shared best practice. You will also find strong voices of collective support and shared experience. 

Other sources of information include the free Acas helpline (tel: 0300 123 1100), the free government funded Employment Advisory and Support Service website and helpline (tel: 0808 800 0082), your local Citizens Advice, and the resources of the campaigning charity the Fawcett Society

If the behaviour is linked to issues relating to pregnancy, childbirth, your caring responsibilities or your role as a parent, you could also think about approaching the advice line of a specialist charity, such as Maternity Action or Working Families

In 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released important new guidance on harassment – including sexual harassment - which sets out standards that employers are expected to meet. This is a useful resource to look at if you want to understand the standards your employer should be meeting and persuade them to take action. 

In particular, the new guidance suggests that employers should:  

  • develop policies in consultation with any recognised trade union and train staff to implement those policies; 

  • maintain centralised records in enough detail to enable trends to be analysed; 

  • conduct staff surveys; 

  • use “lessons learned” sessions once complaints have been resolved; 

  • listen to feedback from employees, for example through exit interviews; 

  • proactively watch for the warning signs of workplace harassment and bullying, beyond formal and informal complaints, such as increased sickness absence, changes in behaviour, comments in exit interviews, a dip in performance or avoidance of a certain colleague. 

The guidance recommends ways to enable workers to raise issues and sets out what employers should do if workers ask for no action to be taken. 

If you decide to enforce your legal rights, you will have to bring a claim for sex discrimination in the employment tribunal. You should take legal advice if you are considering a tribunal claim. 

The first step before you can bring an employment tribunal claim is to submit an Early Conciliation Notification Form to Acas. Acas early conciliation is free. You can find out more information about Early Conciliation here. You must take this step within the three month time limit for bringing your claim. Unless you do this, you will not be allowed to bring your claim. 

You can find out more about bringing a tribunal claim, including information about Acas early conciliation, in our Enforcing your Rights section. 

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

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