Sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA) making it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their sex. If you have been treated unfairly or less favourably by an employer, another employee or even a third party due to your sex, your employer could be held responsible and you may be able to take a sex discrimination claim to the Employment Tribunal.

What is sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination at work refers to the unfair treatment or unfavourable actions taken against an employee based on their sex, gender or gender identity. It can occur when an employer, another employee, an agent of the employer or a third party conducts a discriminatory act. 

Not only can female employees be discriminated against, but male employees and employees identifying as other genders are also protected from sex discrimination by the EqA. When someone is intending to, is going through or has gone through gender reassignment, they will be protected by this key piece of legislation too. 

The different types of sex discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 protects against several different types of sex discrimination. All employees are protected from the start of a recruitment process through to the end of an employment contract and beyond. 

Direct discrimination

Direct sex discrimination occurs when an employer treats an employee less favourably because of their sex or gender. For example, if a qualified female candidate is denied a promotion because of her gender, it would be considered direct sex discrimination. Both conscious and unconscious sex discrimination is protected under the EqA. 

Indirect discrimination

Indirect sex discrimination refers to policies, practices or criteria that put employees of a particular sex or gender at a disadvantage. For instance, a policy requiring all employees to work late nights could disproportionately affect employees who have caregiving responsibilities, which often fall more heavily on women.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment involves unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile, intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment in the workplace. It can include unwanted verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, like comments or gestures, and any form of unwelcome attention that relates to someone’s sex.


Victimisation arises when an employee is treated unfairly because they are involved in a sex discrimination claim. Whether they are bringing a claim themselves, providing evidence in a claim or supporting someone else involved in a claim, they can be victimised. 

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination

This is a separate claim from a claim for sex discrimination. Unfavourable treatment against pregnant employees or those on maternity leave is considered discrimination. This can include actions such as refusing to promote pregnant employees, treating them unfavourably due to pregnancy-related absences or denying them maternity leave.

Equal pay

Pay discrimination based on sex occurs when employees of different sexes are paid differently for doing work of equal value. Disputes over issues like pay, benefits and bonuses can sometimes be considered sex discrimination under the EqA.

Making a sex discrimination claim

When they have experienced sex discrimination at work, employees may be able to take a claim to the Employment Tribunal. There are time frames to be aware of in sex discrimination claims and it is typically required that a claim is made within three months less one day of the discriminatory behaviour. The Employment Tribunal can sometimes extend time limits when it is just to do so, but it is not very common. 

There are several outcomes of a successful sex discrimination claim. An Employment Tribunal may require an employer to take certain actions, like reinstating unfairly dismissed employees, and also award compensation. The compensation that can be awarded is limitless for sex discrimination. This compensation can include loss of earnings as well as injury to feelings.  

In cases of sex discrimination, all parties are required to follow the ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievance Procedures. When this Code is not followed, there are penalties for both employers and employees, and the compensation awarded by an Employment Tribunal can be reduced by up to 25%.

If you believe you have been discriminated against at work due to your sex or gender, it is advisable to consult with an employment law solicitor who specialises in sex discrimination cases. They can help you to understand the legal options available to you and assist you in taking a claim to the Employment Tribunal. A sex discrimination lawyer can provide the comprehensive support you need with discrimination claims.