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.

Discrimination: Only Unlawful if It Is Unlawful

Discrimination is only unlawful if it is unlawful (or why mantras cannot be relied upon when it comes to legal advice)

My title feels like a bit of an obvious statement – but spend any time on current debates and it becomes a useful reminder. 

Discrimination is a word that has shifted in popular meaning. It relates to making choices and used to be regarded as having a more positive definition than currently. It used to suggest being discerning, recognising and understanding the qualitative difference between one thing and another. Now it is generally accepted as negative and relating to prejudice or stereotyping. Positive or negative, though – when is it unlawful?

Law is often complex, and equality law particularly so. But you wouldn’t get that from the mantras and soundbites we are exposed to in the knotty conflict between trans demands for inclusion and women’s sex based rights to single sex services and sports. Discrimination is a word we hear a lot.

Take rugby. The BBC reported that World Rugby is considering a proposal to ban transgender athletes from women’s contact rugby due to safety concerns that they say have emerged from recent independent research, claiming there was likely to be “at least a 20-30% greater risk” of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty.

Its current rules allow trans women to play as long as they suppress their testosterone levels for at least 12 months, in line with International Olympic Committee policy. 

But the governing body has undertaken a “comprehensive review” of that policy, telling BBC Sport in a statement that it was not working.

“The latest peer-reviewed research confirms that a reduction of testosterone does not lead to a proportionate reduction in mass, muscle mass, strength or power,” said the statement.

“These important determinants of injury risk and performance remain significantly elevated after testosterone suppression.

“This presents a clear safety risk when transgender women play women’s contact rugby.”

This is presented by trans lobbying groups as “discriminatory” (by which they mean unlawfully discriminatory) and “transphobic.”

But one of the early lessons one learns as a specialist discrimination lawyer is that the equation “I have a protected characteristic and a bad thing is happening to me = unlawful discrimination” is a commonly held but also fallible view. Bad things happen all the time to people but it is not automatically unlawful or even to do with their protected characteristic. 

So a useful list of things to note when initially considering if something is unlawful discrimination:

Firstly, if the cause of the harm is related to something which is not a protected class, then it is not unlawful discrimination. So not being offered a job because you have tattoos or are left handed may justifiably feel unfair. A recent example was Conisbee v Crossley Farm where the claimant’s brand of vegetarianism was deemed a lifestyle choice not a protected philosophical belief, meaning the discrimination was lawful.

Secondly if the bad thing didn’t happen because of a particular protected characteristic it is not unlawful discrimination – like being made redundant because the factory is closing; or not being able to dine at the Ritz Hotel because you cannot afford the cost. It might be contrary to another law but this article is only looking at equality law. This is because the act alleged to be discriminatory needs to be (at least substantially) because of that protected characteristic.

Thirdly even “a bad thing is happening to someone because of their protected characteristic” doesn’t always equate to unlawful discrimination. The UK wide Equality Act 2010 is full of exceptions to the general rules and defences to what would otherwise be unlawful discrimination. 

These exceptions are extensive and cover myriad areas: decisions of judges in court; service in the armed forces being excluded from the employment provisions on disability; allowing religious groups to appoint only a straight man who is not divorced as a priest; and many, many more. 

Further, if there is a conflict of rights, this is to be balanced to ensure the most equitable outcome. However, it means that one party, despite having a protected characteristic and suffering an adverse outcome, is judged by the court not to have suffered unlawful discrimination. Examples include Ms Ladele who lost her job as a Marriage Registrar because she would not marry same sex couples because of her religious belief; or Mr Lee the gay man whose request for a slogan iced onto a cake was declined in the Ashers Bakery case. Both had a protected characteristic and something bad happened to them linked to it, but they lost.

Finally for direct discrimination (but not indirect discrimination) there is the so-called “bastard defence.” If someone treats everyone equally dreadfully, then it is not “less favourable treatment” but equal treatment. 

So back to rugby. First thing, how does the law currently permit single sex rugby? You would think that as we generally disallow discrimination on grounds of sex, then people of either sex could insist it was direct sex discrimination not to let a person of the opposite sex play in a single sex team. 

However, there is an exception allowing for single sex teams. S195 Equality Act says :

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.

This tells us that if the evidence shows if the sport is gender affected (as defined in s195(3)) to ensure fair competition or the safety of competitors, then, if the organisers make it single sex, it is not unlawful discrimination. 

Excluding a trans woman from the women’s team is not discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment: it’s not because of their gender reassigment that they’re not able to play on it, but because of their physically male sex. 

Further, it is arguable that if the organisers, despite evidence of safety risk or unfairness, choose not to use the exception in s195, it may in turn be unlawful indirect sex discrimination against a natal woman who is significantly disadvantaged, on grounds of safety or fairness, by the policy of letting trans women play rugby.

So, contrary to those claiming it must be discrimination, excluding trans women from women’s rugby may not be unlawful discrimination. It may feel unfair, hurtful or exclusionary but it is not unlawful discrimination. Indeed to do otherwise may itself be unlawful discrimination against natal women.

Obviously, every issue is determined by the specific evidence and until the court make a final judgment one cannot say definitively in any case whether something is or is not unlawful discrimination. Lawyers can advise based on interpretation and precedent. However, what we can say for certain that discrimination is only unlawful if it is unlawful.

Sex, gender and fair competition in sport

When is it lawful to exclude trans women from women’s sport?  And will it ever be unlawful – or legally risky – not to? I argue that the answers are “usually,” and “yes,” respectively.

Most competitive sports are segregated by sex: as a rule, there will be a women’s event, and a men’s event. Sportswomen and men have to compete in the event specific to their sex, and will generally be refused admission to the opposite sex’s team or event. 

Not being allowed to take part in something you want to take part in because of your sex is sex discrimination, which the Equality Act 2010 prohibits in various contexts – including many of the contexts in which people do amateur or professional sport. So how come it’s lawful to have separate men’s and women’s events at all? 

The answer is in Part 14 of the Act, the Part headed “General Exceptions.” Section 195 is headed “Sport.” 

The main work of section 195 is done by its first two subsections, supported by a definition at s.195(3).  I’ll take the definition first. 

The definition: “gender-affected activity” 

Section 195(3) defines the expression “gender-affected activity.”  If 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, it’s a gender-affected activity.  

That will easy to apply in the vast majority of cases. The physical strength, stamina or physique of the average woman will put her at a disadvantage compared to the average man in almost all sports where muscular strength, speed, body size, reach etc. are significant. No doubt there are some borderline cases, and the odd exception; and it may even be that in some extreme endurance events women start to pull ahead[1]. But in general, if men and women compete in the same sports, relatively ordinary men will outperform even elite women. That’s why we have segregated sports: if we didn’t, in most events women would scarcely get a look in.  

Deciding whether average persons of one sex have an advantage over average persons of the other doesn’t require us to tangle with controversy about who exactly should be included when we calculate the qualities of “average persons of one sex.” Even if you include trans women in the total population of women from which you draw your average, that may shift the average a bit,[2] but it won’t make the male advantage disappear. So the great majority of sports will be gender-affected activities, and self-evidently so. (See Dr Emma Hilton’s paper here https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202005.0226/v1 if you’re not with me on “self-evidently.”) Exceptions will be sports where the differences between competitors are all about skill, built on a base level of athleticism that either sex can attain. Equestrian events are the obvious example; and sure enough, they tend not to be segregated by sex.

Subsection (1): sex discrimination 

Subsection (1) takes participation in any gender-affected sport right out of scope for all relevant prohibitions of discrimination on grounds of the  protected characteristic of sex. Nothing anyone does to anyone on grounds of sex in relation to their participation as a competitor will be unlawful sex discrimination, provided only the sport is a gender-affected activity.

Subsection (2): gender reassignment discrimination  

Subsection (2) provides a more qualified defence to gender reassignment discrimination where the sport is a “gender-affected activity” and the discrimination is necessary to fair competition or safety. 

So to decide whether it’s lawful to exclude a person with a male body from a women’s sporting event, you need to work out whether the circumstances fall under subsection (1) or (2). That means you need to know whether excluding them would be discrimination on grounds of sex, or discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment.

Which kind of discrimination is it? 

I’m going to discuss three imaginary individuals, Chris, Viv and Hilary, all of whom would like to compete in a women’s rugby match, and all of whom are turned away by the body organising the match because they have male bodies. Chris is a man, and doesn’t identify as anything else. Viv is a trans woman without a GRC. Hilary is a trans woman with a GRC. 

Chris is excluded from the match because he’s a man: it’s a straightforward case of direct sex discrimination, but rugby is a gender-affected activity, so s.195(1) makes it lawful to exclude him from the women’s match. 

Viv doesn’t have a GRC, so although she self-identifies as female, so far as the EqA is concerned she’s of the male sex. A person of the opposite sex would have been allowed to compete, so this too is direct sex discrimination, and lawful by virtue of s.195(1). No ifs or buts,[3] and no need for justification in the individual case. 

Hilary, although biologically male, is legally female, so a person of the opposite sex – a man – would have been excluded from the match just the same. So Hilary hasn’t suffered sex discrimination. But she has suffered gender reassignment discrimination, because a comparator of the same (legal) sex but not having the protected characteristic of gender reassignment – that is, a woman who was a woman by biology rather than by a process of legal deeming – wouldn’t have been excluded. So Hilary’s exclusion is lawful under s.195 only if it is necessary in order to secure fair competition or the safety of other competitors.[4]

Bearing in mind that rugby is a contact sport which even among physically well-matched opponents frequently causes injury, it seems likely that including Hilary – unless she has an unusual physique for someone who has been through male puberty – will increase the risks to her biologically female opponents. The same goes for fairness: Hilary’s male puberty will have given her an advantage that no certificate or legal status can erase. This is likely to be true in almost any case where a trans woman with a GRC wishes to compete with women in a gender-affected activity: even where safety isn’t engaged, the fact that the sport is a gender-affected activity will normally be sufficient to indicate that fairness will be undermined if a biological male is allowed to compete. 

So although conditions for the operation of the exemption look different under subsections (1) and (2), the reality is that it will normally be lawful to exclude trans women from women’s events (anyway so long as those events amount to the provision of services within section 29) whether or not they have a GRC. 

Will it ever be unlawful not to exclude trans women from women’s sport? 

Section 195 provides exceptions to general rules in various contexts prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sex and gender reassignment. On their face, they are merely permissive: they say you may discriminate, but they don’t say that you must. So some sporting bodies may take the view that they’d rather not be sued for discrimination, even if they might have a good defence under s.195, so they might as well err on the side of safety by welcoming all comers on the basis of self-identification. 

But it’s not as simple as that. I can foresee two distinct ways in which sporting clubs or bodies may lay themselves open to claims if they permit male-bodied people to compete in women’s events, and there may be others I haven’t thought of.[5] The most obvious one is negligence: in contact sports (and potentially others, like cycling, where there is a risk of accidental contact), permitting trans women to compete may make the contest not merely unfair, but also more dangerous than it ought to be. 

But in many cases even where safety isn’t engaged, there is the possibility of indirect discrimination to contend with. Indirect sex discrimination occurs where a “provision, criterion or practice” puts women at a particular disadvantage compared to men. Opening participation in sex-segregated sports to trans men and trans women (whether on the basis of self-identification, or limited to those with a GRC) will put women at a striking disadvantage compared to men: men in general have nothing to fear from trans men competing in their sports, but if trans women are allowed to compete in women’s sports, natal women are bound to lose out on team places, prize money, sponsorship, medals, and  – perhaps most importantly – participation.

An indirect discrimination claim on this basis isn’t straightforward, because of the extraordinarily broad terms in which section 195(1) is expressed: read literally, it abolishes the whole of sex discrimination law at a stroke in relation to participation in gender-affected activities. That is a result so peculiar that one feels there must be a way around it[6] – but that’s a puzzle for another day. 


[1] In truth, this caveat is only there as an excuse  for a footnote about Jasmin Paris’s outright triumph, beating all previous male and female records, in the 2019 268-mile Montane Spine Race along the Pennine Way while breast-feeding.

[2] In fact, it undoubtedly will.

[3] I am confident that this analysis is correct, but it is fair to note that the contrary view does appear to be implicit in Alex Sharpe’s article ‘Will Gender Self-Declaration Undermine Women’s Rights and Lead to an Increase in Harms?’ (Sharpe (2020) 83 (3) MLR 539-557).

[4] There’s a weirdness in the drafting of s.195. Subsection (1) obliterates the whole of sex discrimination law so far as it relates to participation in gender-affected activities. Subsection (2), in contrast, just excludes four specific sections: s.29, which prohibits discrimination in relation to the provision of services; plus sections 33-35, which relate to the disposal and management of premises. The disparity of coverage isn’t mentioned in either the EHRC Code of Practice or the explanatory note to the Act, and I’m currently baffled by it: I find it difficult to to understand why, for example, the exemption shouldn’t extend to discrimination by associations or educational institutions. If anyone can explain that to me in a comment, I shall be grateful.

[5] Again – please comment if you can think of others.

[6] At the very least, in relation to professional sport, it can’t be compatible with the Equal Treatment Directive 2006/54/EC.