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:
(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.