Sex matters in drawing comparisons

How a false assumption led an employment tribunal to wrongly find an NHS Trust guilty of discrimination

A guest post by Anya Palmer, barrister

In a recent case, V v Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the Leeds employment tribunal cleared the employer and several of its managers of a large number of claims of disability discrimination, gender reassignment discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

However, the tribunal concluded that the employer did discriminate against the Claimant when a manager asked the Claimant questions about removing his underwear at work.

In its judgment the tribunal describes the Claimant as “a transgender woman” and refers to him throughout as “she”. I will not be doing that, because in my view the use of this polite fiction directly led the tribunal to get the Claimant’s sex wrong and therefore to deploy the wrong comparison and get the law wrong.

We are told in the judgment that the Claimant was “currently transitioning”, but no information is given as to what that actually meant or how far the Claimant had got with it.

However, we are told that at the Claimant’s request, staff were told in writing that the Claimant would be joining their team, that the Claimant was transitioning from male to female and that he did not want to be asked questions about that. They were also told that the Claimant would be using a cubicle in the women’s changing rooms and did not want to be asked questions about that either.

It seems likely, therefore, that this was a case where it would be obvious to everyone that the Claimant was not a woman, and the Claimant’s colleagues were being warned that they should play along and not object or ask questions.

The judgment says the Claimant had been the victim of arson attacks outside work. Here is a BBC interview with a transgender person in Sheffield who was the target of an arson attack in 2019. It seems quite likely that “Amy” in this interview and the Claimant are the same person. The arson attack is appalling. But if this is indeed the Claimant, he does not (as of June 2020, about the same time as he started work for the Trust) remotely pass as female, and this is who the women were being told they had to share a changing room with and not ask questions.

The employer organised bespoke training on transgender and gender identity issues for everyone in the catering unit where the Claimant would be working. The tribunal notes that during the training some concerns were raised by female staff:

Some expressed concerns, mainly female members of staff worried about sharing the ladies changing room with a transgender woman. Mrs Edwards tried to address those concerns by explaining that there was no evidence of transgender women being a threat or causing any issues in the workplace, and that there needed to be a balance of rights and respect for someone who wanted to live her life completely as a woman.

We only have this third-hand description of how the women themselves expressed their concerns. It seems unlikely that the women expressed their concerns by referring to the claimant as a “transgender woman”. It is far more likely that they expressed concerns that they were being asked to share the women’s changing room with a man. But there are no findings on what the women themselves said.

What is clear is the women were not being asked if they agreed to the Claimant using the women’s changing room. They were being told that he could and would. Lip service was paid by the manager who delivered the training to a “balance of rights”, but it is clear that their right to any say in the matter had already been written off. 

It is not clear why, because it is not the case in law that a trans-identified male at an early stage in their transition must be allowed to use the women’s facilities: see the Court of Appeal judgment in Croft v Royal Mail Group plc [2003] EWCA (Civ) 1045. But perhaps the Trust was taking advice from people who would not mention that case, who would advise that the Claimant must be treated as if he were a woman from the outset.

*****

The events that led to the finding of discrimination took place a year later. On 10 June 2021 the Claimant spoke to a Mrs Townsend, a Catering Assistant, asking to go home as he said he felt hot and sweaty and this was making him feel ill. He told her he was so hot he had taken his underwear off, and made a wringing motion with his hands. 

Mrs Townsend went to see Mrs Hawkshaw, Catering Manager, because she herself did not have the authority to allow the Claimant to go home, and she recounted the whole conversation to Mrs Hawkshaw. She then made a note of the conversation.

In tribunal the Claimant denied making the remark or the gesture, but the tribunal preferred Mrs Townsend’s evidence:

137.   … She had no issue with the Claimant and no reason to make this account up. She made a note of the conversation on the day. We found that it was accurate. It seemed to the Tribunal that the Claimant did have a tendency to blur appropriate boundaries, and perhaps to “overshare” with her colleagues. We noted that she denied making the comments and gesture as soon as she was asked about it a few days later, but we still found that it was more likely than not that the Claimant had made the comment and gesture.

The Claimant was then off work until 16 June 2021, when Mrs Hawkshaw held a return to work interview with the Claimant and told him he would have to attend a stage 3 attendance management meeting. The Claimant reacted very badly to this, going and shouting in front of staff and customers that he would take the Trust to court.

On 25 June 2021, Mrs Hawkshaw had another meeting with the Claimant to address various issues, and in this meeting she asked the Claimant about the underwear remark and the wringing gesture.

It seems that what moved Mrs Hawkshaw to ask questions about that now, two weeks after the Claimant had made the remark, was that the day before this meeting, Mrs Hawkshaw had received a report that the Claimant had been seen “naked from the waist down” in the women’s changing room. Mrs Hawkshaw had been given a statement about this. Unfortunately the tribunal does not tell us any more about this incident, which seems like it might just be relevant to why Mrs Hawkshaw questioned the Claimant about removing underwear at work, as indeed the tribunal itself concludes.

Mrs Hawkshaw did not ask the Claimant directly about the changing room allegation, but she did ask the Claimant in general terms whether he took his underwear off at work.

The Claimant found these questions embarrassing, and subsequently raised a grievance, and later brought a claim of direct discrimination based on gender reassignment in respect of having been asked them.

The tribunal dealt with this claim as follows:

152. …the Tribunal found that the Claimant had proved facts from which it could conclude, in the absence of an adequate explanation, that the reason Mrs Hawkshaw had asked her those questions about her underwear was because she is a transgender woman. Those facts were:

152.1 The questions asked were not simply about what had happened on 10 June 2021 but were more general questions about whether the Claimant wore or changed her underwear at work and whether she was ever inappropriately dressed at work.

….

152.4    Mrs Hawkshaw had received a report about the Claimant being naked from the waist down in the changing room before asking the questions. She did not mention that specifically, but the questions she asked seemed to be connected with that as much as with the conversation with Mrs Townsend.

152.5     A concern about the Claimant’s state of undress in the changing rooms was likely to be connected with the fact that she is a transgender woman. This was a communal changing room with a shower cubicle. It did not seem to the Tribunal likely that there would have been a concern about a cisgender woman in a state of undress while changing in such a changing room. [emphasis added]

153.   The Tribunal therefore found that the burden shifted to the Trust to prove that the reason for Mrs Hawkshaw’s line of questioning was not the Claimant’s transgender status. The Trust did not do so…. The Tribunal therefore concluded that Mrs Hawkshaw asked the questions because of a concern that the Claimant as a transgender woman might be in a state of undress in the female changing room. That was because of gender reassignment. Mrs Hawkshaw would not have asked the questions of a cisgender woman. [emphasis added]

I will argue that this was the wrong comparator. To do so I first need to explain how comparisons work in discrimination law.

*****

To show that he or she has been discriminated against because of a protected characteristic, a claimant needs to show that he or she was treated less favourably than a comparator who does not have that protected characteristic.

So if you are a woman claiming sex discrimination, you need to show that a man was treated more favourably in the same (or not materially different) circumstances.

Or if there isn’t an actual comparator, you can argue (based on evidence) that a hypothetical man would have been treated more favourably in the same circumstances.

As a matter of logical inference, if a woman was treated less favourably than a man was treated (or a hypothetical man would have been treated) in the same circumstances, the reason for the less favourable treatment is the woman’s sex.

And so it goes for each of the nine characteristics that are protected under the Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The requirement that the circumstances must be the same, or not materially different, is an important feature of this comparison exercise. You have to compare like with like, and this is expressly stated in the Equality Act 2010 (and always has been since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975).

Section 23(1) of the Equality Act 2010 provides as follows:

(1) On a comparison of cases for the purposes of section 13, 14, or 19 there must be no material difference between the circumstances relating to each case.

Section 13 defines direct discrimination, so this requirement applies in any case where direct discrimination is claimed.

In Shamoon v Chief Constable of the RUC [2003] ICR 337 HL, the claimant, a senior police officer, brought a claim for sex discrimination, and she sought to compare how she had been treated by her line manager with how two male colleagues had been treated. The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal held that the two male officers were not valid comparators, because there was a material difference between her circumstances and theirs – there had been complaints about the Claimant, but not about the comparators. This was relevant to her line manager’s treatment of her. The House of Lords upheld that conclusion.

In the House of Lords, Lord Scott of Foscote explained the way that a comparison is used to establish direct discrimination, and he then said this:

110.  In summary, the comparator required for the purpose of the statutory definition of discrimination must be a comparator in the same position in all material respects as the victim save only that he, or she, is not a member of the protected class. [emphasis added] 

The way this applies in the case of a trans-identified male who has not obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) was confirmed by the High Court in R (on the application of Green) v Secretary of State for Justice.

The claimant, a male prisoner serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, had recently decided he wanted to undergo gender reassignment, and he sought judicial review because he was refused permission to obtain “wigs, intimate prostheses and tights” (for security reasons). The claimant complained that this was in breach of prison service policy, and also complained that it was unlawful discrimination contrary to the Equality Act.

The judge dealt with the discrimination part of the claim as follows:

65.     This is a direct discrimination claim under section 13(1) of the Equality Act 2010 and, as the Governor is exercising a public function, section 29(6) engages.

66.     A comparator has to be found in order for there to be discrimination or for the claimant to show she has had less favourable treatment. The claimant asserts the comparator should be a female prisoner; whereas the governor contends it should be a male prisoner. There can be no doubt the claimant has a protected characteristic — gender reassignment. The claimant is, however, male. The only possible comparator is to a male prisoner who is not undergoing gender reassignment.

67.     It seems to me that I must approach the discrimination issues in this way:

(1)  Has the claimant been treated less favourably by the Governor than he would treat others in the exercise of his public function?

(2)  If he has so treated the claimant, was this due to the claimant’s gender reassignment?

68.     Frankly, it is almost beyond argument that the only comparator is a male Category B prisoner at HMP Frankland. I am influenced by the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Croft v Royal Mail Group plc [2003] EWCA (Civ) 1045. I find it impossible to see how a female prisoner can be regarded as the appropriate comparator. The claimant is a man seeking to become a woman — but he is still of the male gender and a male prisoner. He is in a male prison and until there is a Gender Recognition Certificate, he remains male. A woman prisoner cannot conceivably be the comparator as the woman prisoner has (either by birth or election) achieved what the claimant wishes. Male to female transsexuals are not automatically entitled to the same treatment as women — until they become women.

69.     A male prisoner (who wishes to remain male as most do) does not need to express his gender identity in any purposeful way. He does so innately through the male clothes he wears and certainly does so via prison clothing. Transsexual prisoners are treated differently (and wish to be so) and as such have a number of advantages in terms of clothing and lifestyle not available to the remainder of the male prison population absent privileges.

70.     I have no hesitation in saying the correct comparator is a male prisoner in Category B at HMP Frankland. I am utterly unconvinced that the claimant has been treated less favourably than such a prisoner — indeed the reverse. Consequently, the second question I posed does not arise.

In short: the correct comparator for a trans-identified male who does not have a GRC, and is claiming gender reassignment discrimination, is a male who does not identify as trans.

The correct comparator is a person who does not have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. But the comparator should be the same in all other material respects. So if the claimant is male, the comparator must also be male.

*****

How do we apply Shamoon and Green to the facts in V v Sheffield Teaching Hospitals?

The Claimant in V was not a woman, however managers and the tribunal refer to him. He was born male. He remained male. The fact that he now identified as “a transgender woman” did not change this. Self ID is not yet the law in this country, however much Stonewall and others try to make out that is the case.

The judgment does not say whether the Claimant had obtained a GRC, but if he had obtained one it seems likely that he would have mentioned that in evidence and relied on it, that the tribunal in turn would mention that in its fact finding, and indeed the tribunal might have considered in its reasoning what effect, if any, that had when making the comparison.

So it seems highly likely that the Claimant did not have a GRC and remained legally male, as well as biologically male.

The correct comparator would therefore be a male who did not have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

So why did the tribunal draw a comparison between how the Claimant was treated and how a “cisgender woman” would have been treated?

There are two possibilities here:

(1) The tribunal did not understand that the comparator should be the same as the Claimant in all respects except for the protected characteristic, and so the comparator should be of the same sex as the Claimant; or

(2) The tribunal wrongly assumed that the Claimant was female, and therefore concluded the comparator should be female.

The tribunal does not give any explanation as to how it decided that the correct comparator was a “cisgender woman”, so it’s difficult to say for sure which of the above is the answer, but I strongly suspect the answer is (2).

The tribunal is very likely to have considered the Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETBB). This is a sort of diversity and inclusion handbook for the judiciary. It provides guidance on how to run the hearing. It is not a guide to the law. It has no status in law. And yet it is highly influential. It advises courts and tribunals to always use a trans person’s chosen name and pronouns regardless of the reality or their legal status:

It should be possible to respect a person’s gender identity and their present name for nearly all court and tribunal purposes, regardless of whether they have obtained legal recognition of their gender by way of a Gender Recognition Certificate.

In other words – the court or tribunal is advised to be guided by self ID. If a male person says he identifies as a woman, then regardless of whether he has obtained a GRC, regardless whether he has even undergone any physical transition, the court should refer to him as a woman and use the pronouns “she” and “her.”

It’s the same advice that the Trust gave to its employees. Act like V is a woman. Don’t ask questions.

Trans women are women.

The problem is that this is, essentially, a political position which does not represent the law anywhere in the UK. Self ID is not the law. But the idea that a man is a woman if he says so is being pushed by activists to managers and decision makers in institutions up and down the land. It is happening in the NHS. And it is happening in the judiciary. (For a full analysis of the problems with the Equal Treatment Bench Book in this respect, see Prejudging the Transgender Controversy by barrister Thomas Chacko.)

There is no reminder to the judges who consult the Equal Treatment Bench Book that there may be cases in which it falls to them, as part of their job, to consider what sex the claimant is, and at that point they need to forget about polite fictions and determine whether the claimant, as a matter of fact and law, is a man or a woman – however unpalatable it may be to the claimant if the answer is that the claimant is male.

(Nor is there any warning to counsel that the judge may consult the ETBB. In the preliminary hearing in Forstater v CGD Europe on whether the claimant’s belief was a protected belief, I was not aware that the employment judge had consulted the ETBB until I read about that in the judgment. I had no opportunity to address the judge on that. Obviously this should not have happened, but happen it did. By way of advice to any counsel dealing with these cases – be aware that the judge may consult the ETBB without telling you. If there is anything you want to say about the ETBB, make sure you say it. Don’t wait to be asked.)

I suspect the tribunal in this case did as it was told by the ETBB (and/or any diversity training the judge may have had) and referred to the claimant throughout as “a transgender woman” and using the pronouns “she” and “her”. And in doing so it forgot that this polite fiction did not mean the claimant was in fact a woman.

So when it came to look for a non-transgender comparator, it assumed the comparator would be a non-transgender woman.

*****

How did this affect the tribunal’s conclusions on this issue?

The tribunal concluded that

152. the Tribunal found that the Claimant had proved facts from which it could conclude, in the absence of an adequate explanation, that the reason Mrs Hawkshaw had asked her those questions about her underwear was because she is a transgender woman... [emphasis added]

152.4 Mrs Hawkshaw had received a report about the Claimant being naked from the waist down in the changing room before asking the questions. She did not mention that specifically, but the questions she asked seemed to be connected with that as much as with the conversation with Mrs Townsend.

152.5 A concern about the Claimant’s state of undress in the changing rooms was likely to be connected with the fact that she is a transgender woman. This was a communal changing room with a shower cubicle. It did not seem to the Tribunal likely that there would have been a concern about a cisgender woman in a state of undress while changing in such a changing room. [emphasis added]

153. The Tribunal therefore found that the burden shifted to the Trust to prove that the reason for Mrs Hawkshaw’s line of questioning was not the Claimant’s transgender status.

The flaw in the tribunal’s reasoning is obvious once we consider the question the tribunal should have asked:

Was Mrs Hawkshaw likely to have been concerned about a non-transgender male in a state of undress while using the women’s changing room?

Well of course she would. Because it was a women’s changing room, and the non-trans male comparator is… male.

(One could posit as part of the relevant circumstances for making this comparison, that the comparison should be with a non-transgender man who, for some exceptional reason, had been given permission to use the women’s changing room. Even so, it is obvious that if that man were then seen “naked from the waist down” by women using the changing room, that would have been reported to Mrs Hawkshaw, and she in turn would have had concerns, especially if she knew that he had also, on an earlier occasion, told a female supervisor that he was so hot he had removed his underwear, and had made a wringing motion.)

If the correct comparison is used, I cannot see how the tribunal would have concluded that the burden shifted to the Respondent to explain the difference in treatment. There is no difference in treatment once the proper comparator is used. Any report of a man making comments to female colleagues about removing his underwear and then seen naked from the waist down in the women’s changing room would have given rise to the same concern.

The respondent NHS Trust therefore has, in my view, a clear ground of appeal in respect of the one finding of gender reassignment discrimination made against it.

I hope the Trust will appeal. It is only by challenging decisions like this one on appeal that tribunals will hopefully learn to think through what does and does not properly constitute gender reassignment discrimination.


Grammar and grievance

A tweet from Legal Feminist disagreeing with Acas advice on pronouns provoked a storm…

[image: taken from the illustrations to the Screwtape Letters]

In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face…  You know the kind of thing: “I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.” Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (in which an experienced Devil coaches his nephew in the art and science of temptation)

The other day, Acas tweeted out the suggestion that putting pronouns in email signatures could help create a more open and inclusive workplace. Legal Feminist disagreed: 

There followed a storm of engagement, unprecedented for the Legal Feminst account: over 600k impressions, over 500 quote tweets and nearly as many retweets. I think the quote tweets in particular are revealing, and they are the main subject of this blog.

But before I get to that, I want to explain the context a bit; this will be old hat for many of my readers. 

The gender war: a quick primer

There are two sides in this war. They call each other various names, but we can call them sex deniers and gender criticals.

Sex denialism claims that sex doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a man or a woman depends not on your body, but on your inner sense of identity. A male person who says that he is a woman should be treated, referred to – and even thought of – as a woman for all purposes; and vice versa. Various things follow. If a man wants to join a support group for female survivors of male sexual violence, then provided only he says he’s a woman, he must be welcomed in. If a man with fully intact male genitalia wants to undress in the women’s changing area at the swimming pool, anyone who objects is a pearl-clutching prude and a bigot. If a mediocre male athlete wants to compete in women’s events and start breaking records and winning medals, the women should move over. If a male doctor wants to identify as a woman, his true sex is none of his patients’ business – even where intimate examinations are concerned. If a rapist decides he’s a woman and wants to be moved to a women’s prison, that’s his right too.  

Gender criticals think biological sex does sometimes matter: for healthcare, for safeguarding, for everyday privacy and dignity, for fairness in sport, and so on. They think sex is determined by whether you have a male or a female body, and that it’s no more possible literally to change sex than to change species. 

The attentive reader will have noticed that the “gender critical” viewpoint is made up of commonsense propositions that until about ten minutes ago no sensible person – whether on the political left or right – would have dreamed of contesting. The sex denialist beliefs are novel, and surprising.

Pronouns

So where do pronouns come in? 

This takes us to the manner in which sex denialism has been promoted. You can’t defend irrational beliefs with reason. By and large sex deniers don’t try: instead, their strategy has been to attempt to leapfrog over the usual campaigning, lobbying, arguing, persuading phases of bringing about profound cultural and legal  change, and to pretend instead that the desired outcome is already accepted by all right-thinking people – and to silence dissent by visiting dire consequences on anyone who questions that claim. That, I believe, is the whole reason for the vitriol and toxicity that surrounds this subject. Anyone who points out the absurdity of propositions like “some women have penises” must be howled down as a bigot, shamed, no-platformed, hounded from her job, kicked off her course, etc. That way, any doubter who lacks an appetite for martyrdom will be persuaded to steer clear of the whole debate – and insist if pressed that this subject is all too complicated and toxic, and they simply haven’t found the time or head-space to form a view. 

The more insidious part of the strategy is the first part: the pretence that the contentious  propositions that form sex denialism are already accepted without question by all educated, right-thinking people. Sex deniers make determined efforts to weave their claims seamlessly into our language and the fabric of our workplace culture, with the aim of converting contentious claims into the kind of tacit knowledge that doesn’t even need to be stated or formulated. 

Acas’s advice 

So what does Acas mean when it says announcing your pronouns can help create a more “open and inclusive” workplace? Inclusive for whom, and how? Your colleagues and work contacts will mostly know whether you’re male or female, if they need to. If you have an androgynous name and you particularly want to announce your sex, adding a title after your name will clear up any ambiguity with much less accompanying baggage than pronouns. But why do we even need to do this? Those who reply to my emails don’t need to know whether I am female or male. The truth behind pronouns is that their “baggage” is the point. The mechanism by which pronouns are supposed to make the workplace more open and inclusive is that they demonstrate your support of sex denialism, but without requiring you to say anything explicit. They bolster and entrench the idea that gender identity is more important than sex, while maintaining the appearance of a trivial, harmless courtesy. 

That’s why I think our tweet was right. Sex denialism is far from universal: on the contrary, they are bitterly contentious. By putting pronouns in your signature you raise a flag that aligns you publicly with one side – and against the other – of the gender war. If you’re a Catholic pupil at a school in Glasgow where “No Pope!” is the standard greeting (I am not making this up – I have it on reliable authority that it is an example drawn straight from life), you’re put to an invidious choice: either play along – or out yourself as a Catholic or Catholic-sympathiser. No doubt the greeting makes the environment feel welcoming and inclusive for the children of Rangers supporters; less so for young Celtic fans. 

Given the bitterness of the dispute – and especially given the many occasions on which gender critical individuals have had their jobs,  their livelihoods or even their physical safety threatened – being put to the parallel choice by pronoun rituals is not going to make the workplace feel open and inclusive for gender-critical employees.

An accidental behavioural experiment 

Are you feeling sceptical? Thinking maybe I’m overreacting, over-interpreting a harmless bit of politeness? I sympathise. When I first came to these debates, that’s what I thought, too. Why’s everyone getting so het up about language? Can’t we just be polite? 

If that’s where you are – re-read the short  extract from The Screwtape Letters at the top of this blog, and consider the manner in which the original tweet has operated as an accidental behavioural experiment. 

On the face of it, it’s quite a dryly techie tweet from a legal account, disagreeing with a bit of HR advice from Acas. But it’s had an extraordinary level of engagement: at the time of writing, nearly 700k impressions, hundreds of retweets and quote tweets, and nearly 3,000 likes.  

So what’s going on? Why has it attracted so much attention? 

I think the clue is in the quote tweets. They’re almost all hostile. Most fall into one of two categories: either words to the effect “What’s your problem with this trivial courtesy? Get a life!” or else “Ha ha nasty TERF bigots deserve to feel excluded and fearful.” I’ve done a rough-and-ready analysis, sorting about the hundred or so of these quote tweets into categories. I counted 66 that fell into the “ha ha nasty terven” category, 26 into the “harmless courtesy” camp –  plus two that agreed with the original tweet and a few I couldn’t easily classify. 

The typical HR response to any push-back against pronoun rituals is of the “harmless courtesy” flavour. Why, they ask, are you making such a big deal of this little thing? Why can’t you just be kind and polite like everyone else? Or at least not make an ungracious fuss if your colleagues want to be kind and polite! If you argue that pronoun rituals are an attempt to make a particular highly contentious belief system seem so mainstream that it can be treated as the default – and shame anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it – you’ll be met with polite bafflement. “What makes you think it’s that? It’s just a trivial courtesy that will make a marginalised group feel more comfortable. How much can it possibly cost you?”

This type of response was well represented in the sample I looked at. Here’s a typical one:

This is a perfectly understandable take from decent, well-intentioned people who haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought. But it’s hard to sustain in the teeth of the evidence provided by the other, much larger category of quote tweet. There are more than twice as many of these as from team “harmless courtesy”, and they make my case for me vividly – sometimes in unmistakably menacing terms. Here’s a small sample of that type: 

This was a reply, not a quote tweet

The first of these is admirably clear: “MAKE THE BIGOTS STFU [for the pure in heart, that translates “shut the fuck up”]. THAT’S THE BLOODY POINT.” 

This is the heart of the matter. A handful of responses of this type might have been explained away as the bad behaviour of a few hotheads. But the numbers involved make that impossible to sustain. 

A clear majority of the hundreds who have engaged with this tweet by quote-tweeting it are saying in terms that the point of including pronouns in email signatures is to make “TERFs” feel excluded and fearful. 

The quote tweets have vividly dramatised both aspects of the technique recommended by Uncle Screwtape in the extract at the start of this blog: one group (Zoë Irene et al) boasting that they are indeed saying something with the express purpose of giving offence – while the other group takes on the role of maintaining a sense of grievance when offence is taken. 

Expressing loathing and contempt for those who hold gender-critical views may be fashionable; it even seemed to have a degree of judicial sanction until the first instance decision in Forstater was corrected on appeal. But the lesson from the judgment of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Forstater needs to sink in. Gender-critical beliefs are within the protected characteristic of “religion or belief” (so too, probably, is sex denialism); harassing or discriminating against your employees on grounds of their protected beliefs can prove expensive. One of the things to be taken into account by a court or tribunal in determining for the purposes of a claim under the Equality Act whether conduct has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them is whether it’s reasonable for it to have that effect. The fate of this tweet could itself provide telling evidence. 

But Is It Cricket? Giving Women A Sporting Chance

Lia Thomas, a swimmer, born male, is now routinely winning women’s swimming races in the United States. Soon we are bound to see a similar situation in the UK. Do the female athletes who lose team medals and opportunities in these situations have any legal recourse?

I think they may have. I’m going to consider a hypothetical. 

 I am consulted by Jane, a top female sports woman. She is third best in the country in her sport, which combines speed, strength and skill. Normally this means she makes the big competitions for her home nation, England as there are three places in the team. This year the rules were changed to allow trans women to compete in the women’s competition if they met a requirement to lower testosterone to a certain level for one year. As a result, May, a trans woman, is eligible for a place on the women’s team in Jane’s sport. May matured through male puberty before transition, and was an elite male athlete in the same sport as Jane, and under the new rules is certain to make the top 3.   Jane, as the fourth-placed athlete in this event, will miss out on competing for her country. She feels the rules to be unfair and she will lose out financially and in sporting terms.

I am not in this piece going to discuss the merits of Jane’s view, but how a claim under the Equality Act would be framed. 

I will assume the identity of the organisation she will challenge is clear and her claim is in time. I will also assume the organisation is not a public body so PSED not engaged, but the competition organiser is a provider of services to the public, so Jane can bring her claim in the County Court in England and Wales or the Sheriff Court in Scotland under part 3 of the Equality Act. 

So, with any claim where the problem is a rule (or rule change), the most obvious starting point is indirect discrimination, under s19 Equality Act.

19 Indirect discrimination

(1)A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s.

(2)For the purposes of subsection (1), a provision, criterion or practice is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s if—

(a)A applies, or would apply, it to persons with whom B does not share the characteristic,

(b)it puts, or would put, persons with whom B shares the characteristic at a particular disadvantage when compared with persons with whom B does not share it,

(c)it puts, or would put, B at that disadvantage, and

(d)A cannot show it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

In this case we have a “provision, criterion or practice” of allowing not just biological females into the sport but also MTF trans identifying people who meet certain criteria relating solely to testosterone levels.

The rule applies to all competitors, whatever their protected characteristics. It will be indirectly discriminatory on grounds of sex if it puts the women to whom it is applied at a particular disadvantage compared to the men to whom it is applied; and puts Jane at that disadvantage; and the competition organiser can’t show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

Does it put Jane, as a biological women, at a particular comparative disadvantage?  It doesn’t have to be all or even most women. I suspect she would point to evidence that she, as with the average biological woman, is likely to have smaller heart, lung capacity, shorter limbs, difference in pelvis, etc than a comparable trans woman who had gone through male puberty. It can even affect only a few women, as long as there is  a causal link to the protected characteristic (this is known as small group disadvantage).

Jane’s argument would presumably be that the difference in performance is so great between the average elite athlete female and the average elite athlete male who has gone through male puberty (even those whose testosterone is lowered) that it makes the rule inherently discriminatory.

So her argument is she is put at that disadvantage.

So then the onus is on the organisation who made or apply the rule to show it is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Obviously a court would consider all the technical, sociological, scientific evidence for and against such a rule.

Now this is where s 195 of the Equality Act comes in.

In discrimination law, the starting point for any rule generally is no discrimination at all. So one category open for all. However, that would be wholly unworkable. It would mean no Paralympics, no women’s sport or no age-restricted events. So Equality law recognises that it is legitimate to impose some categories to allow groups who would always lose if young, non disabled men could always compete, to limit their events to people of a particular protected class.

S195 Equality Act identifies how one set of categories, relating to sex is permissable:

195 Sport

(1)A person does not contravene this Act, so far as relating to sex, only by doing anything in relation to the participation of another as a competitor in a gender-affected activity.

(2)A person does not contravene section 29, 33, 34 or 35, so far as relating to gender reassignment, only by doing anything in relation to the participation of a transsexual person as a competitor in a gender-affected activity if it is necessary to do so to secure in relation to the activity—

(a)fair competition, or

(b)the safety of competitors.

(3)A gender-affected activity is a sport, game or other activity of a competitive nature in circumstances in which the physical strength, stamina or physique of average persons of one sex would put them at a disadvantage compared to average persons of the other sex as competitors in events involving the activity.

Ignore the reference to gender, technically they mean sex.

Whilst this, on the face of it look permissive, when considered within the context of an indirect sex discrimination claim, it could be a part of the duty not to indirectly discriminate against biological women.  It relates to the issue of whether the rule is determined as “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. The onus is on the sports body to show that it is.

The fact that s195 is written into the Equality Act is a strong indication by Parliament that use of such an exception is not only okay but could be necessary to achieve fair competition. Consideration of why the sports organisation did or didn’t use the exception(by reference to strong evidence from consultation, research and analysis from all potentially affected people) will be key.

I cannot predict how any particular claim might be resolved (though studying the recent World Rugby process  here for determining categories is instructive). But given that women’s sport has for the first time started to be commercially important, it is very likely that a claim for indirect sex discrimination will be made soon.

If I were Ruler of the World….(part 1)

On twitter, after a period of great exasperation I wrote a thread that started: “I am coming to the view that, if or when I am ruler of the world, anyone who wants to speak about UK Equality[1] law matters on social media has to first sit an exam which I will set.”

I then set out a list of six questions to be answered, in this mythical situation.  Then I promised to provide suggested answers, so here goes with answers 1 and 2 (I will answer the others in later blogs):

1.  What are the nine protected characteristics?

In the Equality Act 2010, nine characteristics were identified as ‘protected characteristics’. These are the characteristics where evidence shows there is still significant discrimination in employment, provision of goods and services and access to services such as education and health. They are:

age;

disability;

gender reassignment;

marriage and civil partnership;

pregnancy and maternity;

race;

religion or belief;

sex;

sexual orientation.

They are then defined in ss5-12 and 17 and 18 of the Act.

It was pointed out by my good friend, lawyer Jo Chimes that, as I mentioned UK, there is a 10th in Northern Ireland, namely political opinion (see The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998).

So, if you want to bring a claim under the Equality Act you have to show how the conduct complained was linked to one of the protected characteristics; and how you are protected by the Act.

2What are comparators and why are they important?

If you want to show you’ve suffered unlawful discrimination or bring an equal pay claim, you need to compare your treatment with the treatment of someone else who doesn’t have the same protected characteristic as you. The Equality Act calls this person a “comparator”.

So, a women arguing she was overlooked for a payrise because of sex discrimination would need a man as a comparator. If arguing it was because of her race, it would need to be someone not of her race and so on. You cannot use someone who shares your protected characteristic as a comparator.

In direct discrimination claims (s13), you have to show evidence of less favourable treatment (because of a protected characteristic) than a valid comparator. The comparator can be a real person, similar in all material circumstances but who doesn’t share your PC, or a hypothetical comparator (a thought experiment based on what it is likely to have happened in the same situation if there was a real comparator). Lawyers in these cases can spend considerable time arguing about what is a valid hypothetical comparator for the particular circumstances.

In Chapter 3 of the Act, equal pay claims require a real comparator; so a hypothetical comparator is not allowed. There is some concern that if gender (actually sex) self ID is introduced, this could defeat an otherwise valid, individual equal pay claim.

In indirect discrimination claims (s19 ) and duty to do reasonable adjustments (s20), comparators are also required but in a way too complex for this introductory exam.

So, those are my suggested answers. Will post parts two and three, when I get some time.


[1] [1] Ive correct my spelling mistake from the original

Two Key Questions

This article is written about women, but it could also apply to men and male only services.

As many readers will already know, the Equality Act 2010 provides for single sex services, and acknowledges that there will be times when it is reasonable for a service to exclude members of the opposite sex (para 27 Schedule 3) or to exclude on the basis of gender reassignment (para 28 Schedule 3). Evidently, it is not likely to be reasonable when someone is running a greengrocers, but it might well be when they are running a refuge or rape crisis centre and need to retain a recovery space that is female only, for example.

Today, the word “terfs” is trending on Twitter. This seems to have been prompted by a combination of factors, one of which is Margaret Atwood’s retweet of an article deemed unacceptable by the self-appointed terf-finder generals. At the time of writing, Atwood has not yet recanted, but did tweet “Read her piece, she’s not a terf” for which she was met with a barrage of comments insisting that the article did indeed bear the devil’s mark of terfery. 

The “not a terf” comment made me wonder: what IS a terf? Is the existing law a terf? And I think it reduces to these two key questions:

  1. Do you think that women and girls should ever have the right to meet or to access services where there is nobody present who was born male?
  2. If the answer to (1) is no, do you think that there is any stage in a male-born person’s proposed or actual transition where access to women’s spaces should be restricted?

Answering yes to one or both of these questions is in line with the existing law in the UK, which provides that single sex spaces are legal and that exclusion is justified where ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ – and what is proportionate for someone who has decided in their own mind but not yet taken any physical steps at all towards transition, may not be the same as what is proportionate for someone who has socially and medically transitioned years ago.

Yet watching the terfs hashtag on Twitter, it seems that for the purists, the only available answer to either question is no. If you answer yes to either of them, then welcome to the coven – you may be horrified to learn it, but you too are among the terven. The only distance between us is which services should be restricted and how far along in transition a person should be to access them. 

For those who do, honestly, take the position that the answer to both questions must be no: you are advocating the abolition of single sex or separate sex services altogether, and therefore the abolition of some of the protections available on the basis of sex contained in the Equality Act. Anyone who wishes to advance such an extreme position must be able to formulate a cohesive argument in favour of this drastic legal change. “Shut the fuck up, terf” is not one.

How To Reconcile The Seemingly Irreconcilable

This is a talk I gave at the FILIA conference on 17 October 2021. 

I am going to try to explore how to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable principles using an old pre Equality Act (EA) case, largely forgotten except for nerdy enthusiasts like me and many of you.

The two seemingly irreconcilable principles are

1.    Equality law requires us to treat no one less favourably on grounds related to / because of their protected characteristic.  No discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s protected characteristic. Jobs, services etc should be available to all equally.

Against that

2.    “One size fits all” means that some people, because of their protected characteristic, are either significantly disadvantaged by this or not even able to access a service. So, we sometimes need to discriminate, as it were for the greater good, to ensure this group can access a service. It may not be all or even most of the protected class; it may only be a small sub group – but they are disadvantaged, if everyone is treated exactly the same. 

So how to reconcile this?

Well the 2008 case of Shah and Kaur v Ealing BC (better known as the Southall Black Sisters case) is a really good illustration. 

Whilst it predates the Equality Act 2010, it follows the same principles.

The case concerned Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that provided services to Asian and Afro-Caribbean women particularly in relation to domestic violence. For a while, they received substantial funding from Ealing Council. 

The Council decided in 2007 that it would in future encourage open competition by commissioning services according to agreed criteria. These included that services should be provided to ‘all individuals irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith, age, disability, resident within the Borough of Ealing experiencing domestic violence’.  A one size fits all approach. 

This requirement meant that SBS would no longer be able to limit their services to Asian and Afro-Caribbean women. They sought a judicial review of this requirement.

It is well worth everyone reading Lord Justice Moses’ judgement in the High Court being short, easy to read and generally excellent.

On the second day of the hearing, Ealing BC conceded that it could not maintain its decision and sought to resist the application no longer. It agreed to continue to fund Southall Black Sisters pending a further fresh decision as to the criteria it would adopt for the commission of services to assist the victims of domestic violence. 

Recently, I met the Chief Exec of SBS Pragna Patel. I was enthusing, like a fangirl, about the case. She said it was she who was adamant they needed a written judgment to set out the legal principles clearly for everyone; and LJ Moses agreed to this.

The statutory basis on which this case was decided was the 1976 Race Relations Act (RRA), which, after the Steven Lawrence inquiry had been amended in 2000. It then included a precursor to what we know as the Public Sector Equality Duty, and was known as the Race Equality Duty.

It required:

due regard for the need –

(a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, and 

(b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.”

This wording clearly is the basis for s149 Equality Act  

s149 Public sector equality duty (PSED)

(1)A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to—

(a)eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;

(b)advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;

(c)foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”

In this case, no full equality impact assessment was undertaken until some time after these proceedings were launched. Further, the initial decision was predicated on some seriously dodgy use of statistics. Ealing BC observed that the largest proportion of domestic violence in its Borough was suffered by white European women. But that statistic was meaningless and irrational unless compared with the fact that 58 per cent of the female population of Ealing during the same period consisted of white European women. As the documents showed, 28 per cent of domestic violence was suffered by Indian, Pakistani and other Asian women. That statistic is of vital importance when one considered that those groups made up only 8.7 per cent of the population within Ealing. 

In those circumstances it was plain from the statistics available to Ealing that a very large proportion of women from that background suffered from domestic violence in comparison to white European women. 

Had Ealing appreciated that the important focus of their attention should be upon the proportion of black minority ethnic women within the borough and consideration of how high a proportion of those women suffered from domestic violence, it could never have reached the conclusion that there was no correlation between domestic violence and ethnicity. 

It really emphasised the need for good quality equality monitoring which clearly identified the protected classes and sub-classes (so women/females as a class of sex and Indian, Pakistani and other Asian women as a subclass).

Further it is clear that Ealing did not appreciate the benefits of specialist services in assisting cohesion rather than working against it. Throughout the process it is plain that Ealing believed that cohesion could only be achieved through making a grant to an organisation which would provide services equally to all within the borough. But this is not true either factually or legally. 

The EA (and RRA and Sex Discrimination Act etc) before it explicitly allows for exceptions to the general principles so that where reasonable or normally provided as such, single protected characteristic services, single sex services, separate sex services etc are legal. The commissioning of services (whether the result is to prevent this or allow these) needs to be done in way which is consistent with the PSED but also indirect discrimination, now s19 Equality Act.

19 Indirect discrimination

(1)A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s.

(2)For the purposes of subsection (1), a provision, criterion or practice is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s if—

(a)A applies, or would apply, it to persons with whom B does not share the characteristic,

(b)it puts, or would put, persons with whom B shares the characteristic at a particular disadvantage when compared with persons with whom B does not share it,

(c)it puts, or would put, B at that disadvantage, and

(d)A cannot show it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Essentially, if the policy of “one size fits all” means that some people, because of their protected characteristic, were now substantially disadvantaged, then it would be unlawful, unless objectively justifiable. This might mean changing the policy to that of providing a variety of different services which collectively allowed all groups who needed such a service to be provided with one appropriate to their needs. However, it need not, and sometimes should not be the same service.

The White Paper preceding the 1976 RRA called Racial Discrimination (Cm 623-4) – made it clear that the Bill should allow the provision of facilities and services to meet the special needs of particular ethnic or national groups (see paragraph 57). The Compact on Relations between Governments and the Voluntary and Community Sector in England 2008, emphasised the importance of independent, non-profit organisations run by, for and located within black minority ethnic communities. 

That sector, it said, brings distinctive value to society. Cohesion is achieved by overcoming barriers. That may require the needs of ethnic minorities to be met in a particular and focussed way. The Southall Black Sisters illustrate that principle. For example, in the second statement from Pragna Patel she identified the experience of the Southall Black Sisters in demonstrating how social services may be provided to those where a single-service provider may be reluctant to intervene in the cultural and religious affairs of a minority for fear of causing offence. Specialist services such as those provided by the Southall Black Sisters avoid those traps and help women to leave a violent relationship by using what she describes as –

“these very concepts of their culture such as honour and shame to support them in escaping violence and re-building their lives.”

She continued:

Specialist services are more effective in empowering minority women so that they can take their place in the wider society.”

So, if true for ethnic minority women in 2008, why not now? Or, more widely, for biological women?  Why not take the specialist service principles from this case and apply to particular services like trauma informed support for females who have experienced male violence? Or specialist services for other single protected characteristics?

Karen Ingala Smith wrote a very important blog about the importance of single sex services to provide for trauma informed services for women subject to male violence.

She wrote about the effect of trauma on natal women and girls from male violence causing PTSD.

After trauma, the brain can be triggered by something that would barely register for someone else, interpreting something that for many people would be unthreatening as a serious threat or danger, for example the presence of a man, particularly where not expected”

She goes on “For many women this means excluding men from their recovery space, and yes, this includes those who don’t identify as men.  Their behaviour, the likelihood that they themselves may be abusive, is not relevant. If it is not women-only, it is not trauma informed for women who have been subjected to men’s violence.”

Her evidence suggests women only spaces provide the equivalent for some biological females to the sort of specialist care provided to minority ethnic communities by Southall Black Sisters. And no reason why trans people, people over 60, disabled people etc don’t also have specialist needs that call for single protected class services.

The irony of specialist charities like Gendered Intelligence, who provide specialist services to only the trans community complaining about specialist services is not wasted on discrimination lawyers.

LJ Moses ended his judgment “..Specialist services for a racial minority from a specialist source is anti-discriminatory and furthers the objectives of equality and cohesion. I can do no better than to conclude this judgment – before giving the agreed order – by quoting the chairman of the Equalities Review in the final report Fairness and Freedom, published in 2007:

“An equal society protects and promotes equality, real freedom and substantive opportunity to live in the ways people value and would choose so that everyone can flourish. An equal society recognises people’s different needs, situations and goals and removes the barriers that limit what people can do and can be.”

This approach should inform the way forward. Policy should be made cognisant on the effect it has on even small groups of every protected class, whether intended or otherwise. We need to be prepared to allow for, fund and defend specialist services. One size doesn’t always fit all. 

“You say objective, I say subjective”, what is the legal test? A blog about harassment and protected beliefs

Before and after the recent Forstater v CGD (2021)  case, there was a torrent of speculative commentary about what this meant both for trans people and gender critical people when it came to harassment under section 26 Equality Act 2010. 

On 27th April 2021, barrister Robin Moira White wrote in the Independent: 

It will mean, for example, that a person will be permitted to misgender a trans work colleague, indeed be legally protected if they do so. This puts employers in an impossible position where one employee is entitled to harass another, likely making the employer liable to the harassed employee for discrimination. It is both morally wrong and practically unworkable: employers will not be able to meet their duty of making workplaces safe to work in or public spaces safe to visit. “

Thankfully, this pessimistic prediction was proved wrong. The Employment Appeal Tribunal stressed that its judgment didn’t mean open season for people to harass trans people. It could have added “and the same goes for gender critical people.” 

In practice, what Forstater established was that both gender identity theory and gender critical feminism are protected as beliefs under s10 EA.

But what does that mean in practice regarding protection against harassment? Is “misgendering” (calling a transperson by a pronoun that signifies their biological sex) or calling someone a TERF (an offensive term to many)  or “bigot” unlawful harassment?

The classic and annoying lawyers’ answer… it depends! 

So how to decide if something is unlawful harassment?

First of all, some important caveats: I am talking about civil law, not criminal law. This isn’t about hate crime or other forms of harassment (say under the Protection from Harassment Act). 

This piece is not about whether it is right or wrong that something is considered unlawful harassment, but my best guess about what a court or Employment Tribunal will determine.

Context

This guidance is not relevant in all situations, only for those set out in the Equality Act. So it applies in work, education, political parties, larger membership organisations, some transport and some housing. It doesn’t apply between private people, say in the streets, unless one of them is working. That may be covered by other law, but is outside the scope of this blog. S29(8) states that, with regard to services to the public and public functions , neither the protected characteristics of religion and belief and sexual orientation are covered by the sections on harassment. ‘Harassing’ conduct related to religion or belief or sexual orientation which causes a detriment is covered by direct discrimination protection.

Which protected characteristics are covered?

Age, disability, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and religion or belief are all protected against unlawful harassment. Marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity, are not – although the latter is effectively covered against harassment via a different route in s17 and 18 Equality Act.

What does the law say ?

The Equality Act says the following:

26 Harassment

(1)A person (A) harasses another (B) if—

(a)A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and

(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect of—

(i)violating B’s dignity, or

(ii)creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

(2)A also harasses B if—

(a)A engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, and

(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect referred to in subsection (1)(b).

(3)A also harasses B if—

(a)A or another person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex,

(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect referred to in subsection (1)(b), and

(c)because of B’s rejection of or submission to the conduct, A treats B less favourably than A would treat B if B had not rejected or submitted to the conduct.”

So let’s break it down:

Unwanted conduct” means the person alleging harassment didn’t consent to it. It is aimed at avoiding liability for genuine give-and-take banter. This does not mean the sort of bad defence used by obvious harassers to seek to exclude insults,  but rather a hug between old friends, affection between consenting romantic partners, or a genuinely equal debate about politics in the canteen between colleagues, for example. 

Related to a protected characteristic” means you don’t have to have that characteristic to be harassed; but there must be a link between the words, actions etc and the protected characteristic. This sort of harassment isn’t about generic bullying.

Conduct has the purpose or effect”. If the evidence shows the alleged harasser intended for the words or conduct to be harassing (usually determined as such because it is obvious for those words or conduct were the sort purposefully used to harass), that is then immediately proved.

If, instead, it is argued that, whether or not it was intended, the effect was harassing, then there is a further test in s26(4) Equality Act, as follows:

“(4) In deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to, each of the following must be taken into account—

(a)the perception of B [person alleging harassment];

(b)the other circumstances of the case;

(c)whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.”

In legal terms this is known as an objective, subjective test. The test is not just whether the claimant perceived harassment, but whether that is a reasonable perception. A person who is frequently late to work may feel harassed by their boss reminding them not to be late on consecutive days, but it would not be reasonable for the reminders to amount to harassment. On the other hand, a person who has ADHD but is rarely late may well be harassed by an employer singling them out every evening with the words “Remember to be on time tomorrow – we know how ditzy you ADHDers are!” 

Violating dignity etc”

 This is exactly as described.. A court or tribunal needs to be satisfied that one of these descriptors could be applied to the situation evidenced.

In this piece I am not going to discuss s26(2) and (3), but it is worth noting the wording.

Very case specific

The result of this is that there are no glib equations to provide a bright line between conduct which is and is not harassment.   It really depends on context and framing.

In the context of the gender critical/gender identity context, my predictions are that: 

1.    Simply wearing a rainbow lanyard or putting one’s own preferred pronouns in your emails at work will not amount to harassing someone else;  but reporting someone to management who simply chooses not to, due to their beliefs, might well be harassment, 

2.    Setting up a Gender Critical or Gender Studies Research Group will likely not be an act of harassment; but campaigning against colleagues doing so might be harassment.

3.    Responding politely with one’s own views to a consultation about single sex or mixed gender facilities will not be harassment; indeed complaining to management about someone about their polite answer might well be. In the case of  Mbuyi v Newpark Childcare (2015), the Employment Tribual found in favour of Sarah Mbuyi, an evangelical Christian, who was dismissed by her employer, Newpark Childcare, for harassment following a discussion with a lesbian colleague in which Mbuyi said that homosexuality was a sin. The tribunal said that Mbuyi had not harassed her colleague as there was no evidence of unwanted conduct, because Mbuyi had given her views after being asked for them. 

4.  Calling a colleague a TERF or intentionally misgendering them may well be held to be harassment. This is distinct from accidental misgendering, because the choice of pronoun is unknown to the speaker or because the speaker’s disability causes them not to remember such things;

5. Discussing politely and personally on social media whether the law should be changed to self ID is likely not to be, unless there is evidence of risk that this may lead to actual discrimination or harassment. Some support for this contention is given in two cases not directly relating to harassment but addressing the risk of that happening going forward. The Court of Appeal in Ngole v Sheffield University 2019 (a case concerning an evangelical Christian student social worker who was expelled from his university course after  expressing “Biblical views” on social media about homosexuality) said at para 129  “such a blanket ban on the freedom of expression of those who may be called “traditional believers” cannot be proportionate” . It was notable that the University had accepted there was no evidence of intention to discriminate against gay people by Ngole. This is in contrast to Dr Mackereth in DWP v Mackereth (2019) who made it clear that his particular Christian belief meant that he did have an issue using pronouns inconsistent with the service user’s birth gender [sic]. It later became clear that it also extended to using a title or style of address, Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss etc inconsistent with the service user’s birth gender [sic]. Dr Mackereth failed in his claim. Whilst it is under appeal, my view is that an appeal is unlikely to succeed.

5.   Proselyting to colleagues or service users about one’s gender critical or gender identity beliefs is likely to be harassment, in a similar way  to cases involving religious proselytising like Haye v Lewisham BC (2010) and Amachree v Wandsworth Borough Council (2010)) .

In each of these cases, the judge considered the facts carefully and conducted a balancing exercise of the basis of the facts to determine whether the employer had properly considered the employee’s right to manifest their belief. In those cases where the employer’s decision was upheld, it was generally because of the actual discriminatory impact of the employee’s actions on other people. 

These cases also demonstrate that similar issues can be dealt with through good employer practice and employees understand what is expected of them. An employer can have a policy which places limits on discussions about religion or belief at work, but any restrictions on freedom of speech or manifesting religion or belief must be proportionate to achieving aims like protecting the rights of others or the reputation of the employer. 

So if confronted with a complaint or grievance by someone alleging unlawful harassment, what sort of questions should you ask to determine if conduct amounts to harassment?

1.    What was the context in which the alleged conduct occurred?

2.    What does the complainant say happened?

3.    What evidence is there of the consequences of the conduct on the complainant or others?

4.    Why do they say it has the effect they claim? This goes to context. 

5.    What does the respondent  say happened?

6.    What are the relative power positions of the two?

7.    What do any witnesses say?

8.    Is there any other relevant evidence?

9.    What do your office policies say about social media use, and what is deemed misconduct or discriminatory behaviour? Do those policies balance freedom of speech, belief and private life with legitimate employer concerns like risk of harassment of colleagues or service users?

10. Have there been previous warnings against this conduct and when?

Having gathered all this information, and weighed up whose evidence is more credible, it is for the decision maker to decide whether each of the allegations are more likely than not to have happened, and if so, to determine sanction. 

Employers and service providers also need to check their policies and Equality and Diversity training materials to ensure there is no harassing content in there. 

In summary, there is no simple equation of  X=harassment but Y does not. Ultimately, it is a fact-specific exercise, where freedoms of speech and belief are balanced against the necessity to protect from harassment in the workplace.

To Boldly Go – Why “going beyond the law” risks unlawful discrimination

Recently I have been seeing a common thread amongst equality activists. The idea of “going beyond the law”.

The implication is we can do more, be bolder and more generous to improve the lot of a particular minority. An  activist’s dream. 

It also suggests the law is outdated and we shouldn’t wait for Parliament to recognise what the law should be. And there is something in it: it was always open to good employers to refrain voluntarily from discriminating on grounds of sex, race, sexual orientation etc before the law demanded that of them.  

However, this may be a trap for the unwary.

Take the situation at Essex University culminating in the Reindorf Report and a subsequent open letter condemning it.

The Reindorf Report was commissioned by Essex University following complaints by two external invited speakers disinvited after complaints from trans activists due to their alleged gender critical beliefs. It is written by an independent specialist discrimination barrister. It sets out clearly (from para 140), the relevant law and regulatory framework concerning the conflict between trans activists and gender critical feminists. Whilst primarily about universities and academic freedom, it has useful transferable messages about conflict of rights, the potential for indirect sex discrimination, the threshold for determining unlawful harassment and serious concerns about the role of Stonewall.

A group of academics and students from the University and elsewhere promptly responded in the form of an Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor. Some are from the Law School and others are human rights academics. It is attached here: https://twitter.com/SVPhillimore/status/1395429598331129861/photo/1

It states “It is entirely appropriate for an academic institution to set an example to wider society by going above and beyond the baseline requirement for rights protection”

It seems an attractive idea. We can do better, go further, give greater rights. What is the harm?

What is missing from the letter is any recognition of the existence of, let alone balancing a conflict of rights. It is simply not mentioned.

The rights of the visiting speakers, let alone other people, especially women with gender critical beliefs at Essex University are wholly absent from the letter. It is as if they don’t exist. Given the context in which the Reindorf Report was written (including a reference to  a flyer circulated in the University bearing an image of a cartoon character pointing a gun and the words “SHUT THE F*** UP, TERF”) this is shocking.

 The letter approaches its subject from the exclusive perspective of one group of people with no recognition that the rights of any other group might be engaged. 

Yet in equality law, recognising and balancing conflicts of rights is bread and butter practice. There is plenty of caselaw from Ladele v Islington BC https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2009/1357.html to Lee v Ashers Bakery Case https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2017-0020.html .

Even Prof Sharon Cowen, whose very pro trans views are well known, (in a paper she co-wrote with Sean Morris entitled “Should ‘Gender Critical’ Views about Trans People be Protected in the Workplace? Reconciling Conflicting Human Rights and Discrimination Claims under the Equality Act 2010 “ at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3849970), recognises the legal conflict of rights. In one of the few paragraphs I do agree with, they state “We conclude that the courts should maintain a flexible approach, while developing coherent principles, that are applied consistently, for balancing and reconciling conflicting rights. This is important in the current context in which there is an ongoing debate, particularly in the discrimination and human rights context, about the extent to which trans people’s rights are adequately protected and whether protecting such rights infringes the rights of others. “

Even in ECHR law, there is recognition that whilst you can go beyond the law it cannot be at the expense of others’ rights.

As barrister Emma Stuart King states “It goes back to the positive/negative obligations distinction. Under the EA, there is only an obligation to refrain from discriminatory conduct, the only exception being in the case of disability where there are positive obligations to take action to prevent discriminatory impact.

Under ECHR case law, the threshold for requiring positive action is always set higher than that for negative obligations. And this is on a state level- where those positive actions are required by individuals you not only have to very carefully and clearly set them out but this can only be done where the required measures don’t negatively affect the rights of others. There really is no precedent in law for the types of positive obligations that are called for.”

I have previously  set out my thoughts on how policy makers make an environment supportive of one group without inadvertently making it worse for another.

There is scope for positive action, for example at s158 and s159 Equality Act. But it has to be applied very appropriately and carefully as Cheshire Police learned found out to their cost when it was determined that their well meaning use of s159 to recruit more Black and Minority Ethnic Officers  to address long-standing underrepresentation was flawed and discriminated against a white man. 

So when you see the exhortation to “go beyond the law” as a suggestion when making policy, think carefully, for it is a minefield for the unwary. Law is often written as it is for good reason.

AEA v EHRC: An Explanation

There has been a lot of interest in human rights circles about this case and its refusal of permission to judicially review the guidance relating to single sex services. We will look at what the case was about and what the refusal to allow permission might mean. We start by introducing the parties.

The Claimant 

The Claimant was Authentic Equity Alliance (“AEA), a community interest company established in 2018 to promote the personal and professional development of women and girls.

It was asking for permission for the courts to determine whether or not the EHRC’s  (below introduced as the Defendant) guidance relating to single sex services was lawful.

The Defendant

The Defendant to the claim was the Equality and Human Rights Commission, (EHRC) a statutory non-departmental public body established by the Equality Act 2006. On its website it advertises itself in the following terms:

As a statutory non-departmental public body established by the Equality Act 2006, the Commission operates independently. We aim to be an expert and authoritative organisation that is a centre of excellence for evidence, analysis and equality and human rights law. We also aspire to be an essential point of contact for policy makers, public bodies and business.

Its job is to provide guidance and expertise on equality law. To that end it has produced various codes and documents, including the Statutory Code of Practice for Services, Public Functions and Associations (“the Code”), which is the authoritative guide to interpretation of the Equality Act. 

Principal area of concern

AEA’s claim against the EHRC focused on one paragraph of the Code:

[Text: If a service provider provides single or separate sex services for women and men, or provides services differently to women and men, they should treat transsexual people according to the gender role in which they present. However, the Act does permit the service provider to provide a different service or exclude a person from the service who is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or who has undergone gender reassignment. This will only be lawful when the exclusion is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.]

The Question of Lawfulness

The excerpt from the EHRC’s code which is copied out above  relates to  the Equality Act which allows service providers to run women only services (in Schedule 3). The Equality Act starts from a position of non-discrimination – the majority of services are available to everyone regardless of the nine protected characteristics – but accepts that there will be exceptions to this rule. Many of these are uncontroversial. It would be remarkable for someone to suggest that the Brownies are not entitled to discriminate on the basis of age, for example. 

Justified Women Only Services

Women only services are  exceptions to the starting point of non-discrimination and they are allowed under the conditions set out in Schedule 3. 

Broadly (we paraphrase and are not delving into technical details here)

Requirement 1

  • It is lawful, and will not be sex discrimination, to offer single or separate sex services (SSS) when this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (Paragraph 26 – 27 )

Requirement 2

  • it is lawful, and will not be gender reassignment discrimination, to offer SSS, if the conduct in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. (Paragraph 28)  

The Substance of the Claim

The claim that was brought was, as the judge said at the end, complicated. A simplified – possibly oversimplified – summary is this:

Prescriptive Inclusion: The “Must” Approach

The Claimant, AEA, said that the phrase in the COP “should treat transsexual people according to the gender role in which they present” had wrongly led service providers to think that they must treat people according to the role in which they present. The Claimant provided evidence of various bodies which had adopted this position (as discussed below). 

The Defendant, EHRC, said that 

  • the COP said “should,” not “must,” 
  • that exceptions were available, and 
  • that the bodies which had adopted the “must” position had not expressly said that they had had regard to the COP. On that basis, the EHRC said that those bodies cannot have been led, or misled, by the COP, as none of them mentioned it. 

In fact, the EHRC said, a policy that said a service provider ‘must’ treat people according to the role in which they present would be “directly inconsistent” with the COP. 

In other words – other bodies may well be making this unlawful assertion, but it ain’t us guv.

The EHRC suggested that if other bodies had unlawful policies, these should be challenged directly, rather than holding EHRC itself responsible for bodies which should have followed its guidance, but either did not do so or misunderstood it – although naturally, the EHRC was not willing to concede that anyone had been misled in the absence of a smoking gun in the form of a policy which said “and we got this off the EHRC Codes Of Practice”. This, as we will come to shortly, is important. 

Extent of Justification Required 

The Claimant said that if a service provider meets the first requirement  (paragraphs 26-27 of schedule 3) and identifies that providing a woman only service is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim,’ it need not meet the second requirement (paragraph 28 of schedule 3) in order to lawfully provide a female-only or male-only service. 

The ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ having been once identified for the purposes of providing the service at all to the exclusion of persons of the opposite sex, there was no need to re-invent the wheel by identifying it again for the purposes of excluding a person of the opposite sex who also had the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. 

The EHRC said that this was wrong. It said that the AEA’s analysis didn’t account for those who had lived ‘for many years’ in an acquired role and yet had not, for whatever reason, applied for a GRC. It might be reasonable to include such a person notwithstanding that they were legally male, while it might be equally reasonable to exclude someone with a GRC who was legally female.

At this stage the parties’ arguments essentially converged. Both parties were arguing that a GRC was not relevant to the provision of a single sex service. 

Whether Appearance is a factor

The court examined the situation where a person using a woman only service is  “visually indistinguishable” from a woman and what this means in law. 

This phrase’s provenance is from a case which predates the Gender Recognition Act (“GRA”),  A v CC West Yorks. It was about  a transsexual MTF police officer who argued that she had suffered discrimination because she was refused employment, as she would not able to search female prisoners. [For the avoidance of doubt, the court held that Ms A “appeared in every respect to be a woman” – this is not a case in which Ms A asserted a gender identity at odds with appearance which would, nevertheless, today bring her within the scope of the Equality Act.  The case was brought because a prohibition on conducting searches would alert her colleagues to her trans status, which was not known to them. There is absolutely no suggestion that she was seeking inappropriate contact with female prisoners. ]

The House of Lords held that sex could include  “the acquired gender of a post-operative transsexual who is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from non-transsexual members of that gender. No one of that gender searched by such a person could reasonably object to the search.” This was all decided under the provisio that the GRA would consider and address the issue of legal sex.  

Times have changed. The GRA is now in force. We no longer assume that gender reassignment means “a post-operative transsexual” and we now understand intimate searches to be something to which a person consents, not to which they object – albeit lack of consent may be no obstacle where the relevant PACE requirements are satisfied.

However personal appearance is  a factor which both parties acknowledged as relevant when providing a single sex service and applying the exceptions. In a situation satisfactory to nobody, personal appearance is relevant when assessing whether excluding a transwoman from a woman only service is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

The decision

The Judge decided that  AEA’s question about the lawfulness of the EHRC’s guidance should not be put in front of the courts. His  job was not to decide what the correct interpretation of the law was at this stage. All he had to do was decide if AEA’s claim was “arguable” – that is, was it arguable that the EHRC’s guidance was so wrong as to be unlawful. 

He decided it was not, for the following reasons:

  1. On the first argument, he agreed that the COP said “should,” not “must.” He pointed out that the guidance extends to just four paragraphs and is intended to be a brief summary not a detailed legal analysis. After “should” comes the disclaimer “However,” followed by an explanation of where exclusion will be reasonable. Although it is not detailed, it is not intended to be an exhaustive guide.
  2. He also agreed that if there are public bodies which have understood a ‘should’ as a ‘must,’ these are capable of challenge by individual service users to individual service providers, whether inclusive or exclusive. We look at this below. 
  3. On the second argument, he agreed with the EHRC that even if a service has met the first requirement by showing it needs to be a single or separate sex service in order to exclude men, nevertheless, it must also meet the second requirement to exclude transwomen where necessary. 
  4. It may well be that a service needs to be female only, but the variation in presentations of transwomen from someone who is ‘visually indistinguishable’ to someone who has only just announced an intention to transition, and the variation in needs of the service users from a rape crisis centre to a changing room with partitioned cubicles, mean that there cannot be the certainty advanced by the Claimant.
  5. In respect of the third argument, the judge agreed that physical appearance is relevant. This is unfortunate. Someone who is genuinely visually indistinguishable will be unlikely to cause challenge or consternation on accessing a SSS, even if they should choose to do so. Focus on a person’s physical appearance is likely to be experienced as demeaning by both the subject and the person required to make the assessment.

THE EHRC’s Stance on Single Sex Services

It would have been significant if the EHRC had been forced  to change its guidance, but the refusal of permission means that the existing situation continues – but with the welcome clarity that the EHRC has acknowledged that there are instances where refusing access to a person of the opposite sex is perfectly reasonable and not phobic. 

The EHRC made two important concessions:

  1. It  distanced itself from prescriptive public guidance that those who self identify as such “must” be treated as women, 
  2. It  made clear that in its view that a women only service is permissible and  the correct approach is more nuanced  with a starting point of inclusion but recognising that exclusion can be  justified (due to being a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’).

What does all this mean?

EHRC agrees that women only space does not have to include anyone who is male at birth, and described prescriptive inclusion policies along the lines of self-ID as “directly inconsistent” with the Code of Practice.

And where should these cases be brought?

The judge strongly agreed with the EHRC that a better challenge would have been brought by an individual service user against an individual service provider, rather than in the abstract at the level of the EHRC and the AEA.

Whilst a reasonable view in law, this is a sad outcome for both trans and feminist service users and for service providers engaging with SSS policies. Women’s services such as crisis centres, refuges and support groups are overstretched and ill positioned to sustain lengthy legal battles.

Some of the Misleading Public Guidance

The policies which AEA had pointed to as containing misleading guidance included 

all of which envisage that a person must, in some cases from the moment they announce an intention to transition, be allowed to use shared private facilities of their preferred sex. In many of these policies there is no hint that the authors were aware that exclusion may be justified where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

EHRC said that there was no evidence that the authors of such policies had been led or misled by EHRC, and that the COP provided adequate guidance explaining that exclusion could be justified.

Here is what EHRC said in its skeleton argument about these documents:

“… insofar as the AEA’s primary objection is to guidance suggesting trans-persons must be allowed to  access the SSS of their acquired gender, that is directly inconsistent with the COP. As set out below, the COP makes clear, in terms, that trans-persons can be excluded from a service where that is justified, and, indeed, the EHRC has taken steps to bring that to  the attention of service-providers whose guidance erroneously suggests trans-persons  must always be permitted to use the SSS of their acquired gender irrespective of the  needs of, or detriment to, others. A striking feature of the present litigation is that, if the  AEA or others affected have identified guidance or practices of other public or private  bodies’ that does, in fact, reflect incorrect statements of law, it is not clear why they are  not being pursued. Instead, a claim has been brought in relation to the EHRC’s COP  which simply does not contain the alleged errors.” [emphasis added]

It might be considered remarkable that quite so many bodies have apparently developed policies without regard to EHRC’s express intervention and also its statutory Code of Practice, but there we have it. Policies and guidance which say a person must be allowed to access the SSS of their acquired gender without reference to possible exceptions is “directly inconsistent” with the COP, and the EHRC will correct service providers whose guidance is “erroneous” in that respect. 

What happens next?

Everyone who provides a single or separate sex service should ensure that they have good legal insurance. It seems likely that as a result of this litigation, women will take action against the individual service providers whose guidance is erroneous, and that more trans people will take action against SSS when they feel that they have been wrongly excluded. As these cases progress up from the county courts to the High Court and Court of Appeal, general principles will be developed through case law as to what a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ looks like in practice.

Organisations offering a SSS also need a policy on how, and when, they will apply the exceptions. It will not be enough simply to say “this service is female only.” The policy must set out why the SSS is justified at all and then must say that admission of transwomen is or is not likely to be justified. A blanket ban is likely to be unlawful: the rather far-fetched example was given of a transwoman with her children approaching an otherwise empty women’s refuge in the middle of the night. The policy must envisage the improbable as well as the routine.

Finally, we need more research. Many women avoid mixed space and we hypothesise they will simply self-exclude quietly, leading service providers to become complacent about the need for single sex services. “Our service is unisex,” they say “and we see no women here who have a problem with it, therefore it is unproblematic.” Women who have stopped using a service because it became mixed, or who avoid coffee shops with unisex loos, need to make this known. Service providers need good research to rely on when deciding whether a SSS is justified in order to meet women’s needs. If the service already has an inclusive or conversely an exclusive policy it will not be enough to simply consult with existing service users – it will be necessary to identify potential users too because the policy will have defined the existing service user group. 

Sex Based Rights: A Remedy To Sex Based Wrongs

What are “sex based rights”? What do women mean by the phrase – and do we even have them? 

A pithy answer is that they are the remedy to sex based wrongs, perhaps – depressingly – a far more readily identifiable set. 

What is usually meant by “sex based rights” are the exceptions set out in the Equality Act allowing services and public functions to offer a single or separate sex service, and to offer this on the basis of biological sex, as well as allowing employers to recruit for only a member of one sex where there is a genuine occupational requirement, women only membership associations, and women only sports.

They are exceptions because they do not arise in the course of the mundane, or in the course of most recruitment. The word “exception” here simply means that you cannot separate by sex “except” where you can – it does not denote that you must have an “exceptionally impressive” reason for doing so. 

Blackadder misinterprets the Equality Act when Baldrick relies on the single sex exceptions

So if you run a greengrocers you cannot insist that you only provide your service to men, and if you run a pub you cannot have a ladies’ room separate to the men, as used to be common. If you are recruiting an admin assistant it would be unwise to ask for women only. If you are the proprietor of a golf club you must not only allow men into the bar. 

So the ordinary rule for services is that everything is mixed sex, except where 

  •  “only persons of that sex have need of the service,” s.27(2) Schedule 3 Equality Act – for example, a lesbian support group;
  • “The service is also provided jointly” and “would be insufficiently effective were it only to be provided jointly,” s.27(3) Equality Act – for example, a mental health group which offers both a mixed group and a men’s group catering to men’s specific needs;
  • “A joint service would be less effective” and “the extent to which it is required by persons of each sex makes it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services,” s.27(4) Equality Act – for example, a feminist society in which consciousness raising sessions are held;
  • The provision is at a hospital or similar establishment providing special care, supervision or attention, s.27(5) Equality Act;
  • The service is likely to be used by two or more persons at the same time and a person of one sex might reasonably object to the presence of a person of the opposite sex, s.27(6) Equality Act – for example a changing room;
  • There is likely to be physical contact between service users and a person might object if that were from a member of the opposite sex – for example a single sex martial arts class, s.27(7) Equality Act.

S.28 to Schedule 3 goes on to clarify that providing a single sex or separate sex service can extend to excluding a person on the basis of gender reassignment – if the conduct in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

It should perhaps be noted here that not all exceptions in the Equality Act are sex based. There are a number of age based exceptions for example – and as far as services go, s.30 Schedule 3 provides a general dispensing power allowing service providers to provide a service to those who share a particular protected characteristic if the provider “reasonably thinks it impracticable” to provide the service to others.

In addition to the exceptions for service providers, employers may, if justified, require an employee to have a particular characteristic, s.1 Schedule 9 Equality Act. In the context of sex based rights, that might mean recruiting a female carer to provide intimate personal assistance to a woman, or a female counsellor for a rape crisis or domestic abuse centre. 

Membership organisations may restrict membership to persons who share a protected characteristic (s.1, Schedule 15 Equality Act). 

(There are also single sex provisions for sports, which this post, already too long, doesn’t touch on further.)

Are these truly “sex based rights”? As armchair pedants will be swift to point out, these are exceptions to the rule of indiscriminate provision rather than rights. The Equality Act does not seek to confer rights; it ensures protections. But what it does recognise is that equality in its purest form – whereby no service provider was allowed to distinguish between child and adult, man and woman, belonging or not to a particular faith – would lead to injustice. In particular, it reflects that equality does not always mean treating everyone the same. Sometimes it also requires removal of barriers, or making provision to address particular disadvantages.  What makes the exceptions actionable rights are the provisions of s.19 which prohibits indirect discrimination and the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) contained in s.149. A body which declined to consider using the exceptions would be vulnerable to a claim in the County Court for indirect discrimination or to judicial review in the case of a public sector organisation which failed to properly apply the PSED.

And where state bodies are concerned, it also works alongside the Human Rights Act, which does confer (or confirm) rights – controversial at the time of the introduction of the HRA, because of the spectre of a precedent of a benevolent government ‘granting’ rights to citizens which could then be snatched away by a despotic successor. The HRA includes freedom from degrading treatment, the right to privacy and dignity, and freedom of association, all of which are relevant to the provision and retention of single sex services. 

So why are they controversial, in a way that corresponding exceptions for other protected characteristics such as age or disability are not? 

The answer seems to lie not in our attitude to sex based rights, but in our attitude to sex based wrongs. It is by no means novel to suggest that such wrongs are historic and now cured by our supposedly perfect and equal society: the surge in ‘men’s rights activism’ of the 90s and 00s was predicated on the idea that women had already gained all the rights we could legitimately expect, that the playing field was entirely level, and any further progress was “demanding special treatment.” 

The nineties were a particular hotspot for such arguments, as the marital rape case (R v R [1991] UKHL 12) was argued and ultimately won. On 23 November 1991, Neil Lyndon produced an article entitled “On how civilised society is being corrupted by feminists and their mad doctrines” in the Spectator, complaining that the “Spare Rib hoods” had infiltrated the law: “The Law Lords tipped their wigs in the direction of the hoods when they reinterpreted the law on rape to include acts between a married couple… they acceded to and gave established respectability to the idea that normal men are rapists.”

The following year, on 17 October 1992, Barbara Amid expressed horror that the government is now “dancing to the tune of radical feminists.”… “In the past 20 years, our society has gone a good way towards becoming a matriarchy… And just as I, being a supporter of liberal democracy, would fight a patriarchy, the fight now must be against matriarchy.” 

Indeed, men’s rights activists such as Diana Thomas (writing in 1993 as David) insisted that it was really men who suffered sex based oppression – including by being ‘provoked by neurotic women into committing date rape’.  

None of this, of course, was exclusive to the 90s. As far back as 1953, the Lady column in the Spectator magazine was complacent: “The time has at last come when the self-respecting intelligent woman need no longer call herself a feminist… The battle is over. The women have won.”

What is new, though, is that such strictures are no longer the preserve of the conservative. Helen Pluckrose wrote in October 2020 in this thread that “I don’t believe sexism against women is a mainstream thing.”

This is not a criticism of Helen, whom I have always found to be a lucid and interesting thinker, whether or not I agree with her. The point is that many, many people did agree with her that while virtually all other forms of prejudice continue to exist and should be countered, sexism against women does not – or at least not in the ‘mainstream.’ 

For those who take this position, increasingly not just conservatives but also those who would regard themselves as social justice connoisseurs, there is no point to sex based rights because there are, by that definition, no sex based wrongs.

If male violence is not targeted at women by sex, but the random violence of a few ‘bad apples’ misbehaving, then women do not need special measures to ensure their protection from it. If there is no sexism, then there is little basis upon which to rest a belief that a joint service would be less effective than a single sex one, and no basis upon which a member of one sex might ‘reasonably object’ to the presence of a member of the opposite sex. If there is no sexism, no barrier to female participation, then women only shortlists are a narcissistic indulgence, women only associations unnecessary and suspect, women only occupational requirements nothing more than special treatment for whingers. 

For those who do see sexism, sex based rights – the recognition within the Equality Act that single sex spaces and provision are sometimes necessary – are crucial. 

While male violence continues to be targeted at women by sex, some survivors will need places where they can breathe, speak and recover freely, without the hypervigilance arising from hearing a male voice or seeing a male person – however delightful that person may be. Post traumatic stress reactions do not pause to reflect on “not all men.” 

While sexism persists, women will need privacy and dignity when changing, when in need of personal care, or in any of the myriad situations envisaged by the Equality Act’s exceptions when a single sex service can be justified. 

While women are subject to FGM, sexual violence, forced marriage, honour killing, corrective rape, military rape, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, selective abortion, sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, objectification, sex trafficking, maternity discrimination, unequal pay, disproportionate caring responsibilities, domestic violence, financial exploitation and control, political underrepresentation, inadequate healthcare, limited control of their own bodies and reproductive choices, systemic barriers to occupational progress and promotion, silencing, belittling or any of the other ways in which sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are enforced, “sex based rights,” however inadequate a shorthand that may be, are a hallmark of a civilised society. Until sexism is eradicated, sex based rights are indispensable.