Handling Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

Concerns surrounding gender discrimination in the workplace came to the forefront again this week following news that Ellen Pao, a US lawyer who took a Silicon Valley firm to court over claims of sexism, lost her case and has been ordered to pay legal costs of nearly $1 million (£660,000). 

Ms Pao filed a case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2012, arguing that she was subjected to a sexually charged atmosphere, denied promotion and then dismissed because of her gender.  Lawyers acting for Kleiner Perkins argued that  Ms Pao simply didn’t mesh with the firm and that terminating her employment was based purely on poor performance. After days of deliberation the California state court's jury rendered its verdict rejecting Ms Pao’s claims of discrimination.

What is interesting about this case is that so many women, not just in technology, but  across all industries, can relate to Ms Pao’s experiences.  While Ms Pao may have lost her case it wasn’t all for a lost cause.  Media attention following the case has renewed debates regarding equality in the workplace.  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most high-profile women executives in the technology industry, shared her own experiences stating that “for women, success and likeability are negatively correlated. As a woman gets more successful and more powerful, she is less liked”.

 A recent survey of 1,500 female office workers here in the UK by Business Environment claims that gender discrimination is still as prevalent as it was some 20 years ago.  With more than a quarter of those surveyed stating they had experienced some form of gender discrimination it is clear that sexism remains a major concern in the workplace.

 The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against employees because of their gender.  This includes the recruitment and selection process as well as once employment has started. The legal responsibility of the employer also extends to preventing discrimination both directly by the employer, but also by other members of staff.  Ultimately they will be accountable for the actions of their other employees unless they can prove that they have done everything within their power to prevent discriminatory behaviour. 

 The best approach for Employers is to ensure that an inclusive and non-discriminatory culture is one of the core values of their business.  This starts with the basics - comprehensive staff policies, handbooks and procedures covering the entire employment process from selection and recruitment right through to retirement.  A good induction process will highlight the importance of company policies, explain how to access them and reinforce the standards of behaviour that are expected.  Policies are nothing if they aren’t followed though, so Management staff should also be trained on how to identify potential discriminatory behavior and what measures to take to eliminate it.

 If an employee feels that they are being unfairly treated because of their gender, the first step is usually an informal discussion with their employer to explain what they see as discrimination.  If the employee’s concerns are not resolved at this early stage then they may need to submit a grievance alleging gender discrimination using the employer’s formal grievance procedure.  An employee should never be further victimised for making a complaint, as this itself would count as discrimination. The employer has a duty to take any allegation seriously and should have procedures in place in order to carry out a proper investigation – this is where the written policies are important.  Dealing with a grievance can be a sensitive matter so an experienced manager should be chosen who can be trusted to handle it fairly and professionally. There should also be an appeal process to review decisions if necessary.

 As there is no upper limit to UK Employment Tribunal awards in discrimination cases, and the two year qualifying period of employment doesn’t apply, well paid employees can receive substantial awards.  In her recent sexual harassment case against Sberbank, Svetlana Lokhova was awarded over £3m for loss of earnings, injury to feeling and damages.  Not many people are aware that employees can also sue their colleagues as well as their employer which could be very costly to the individuals involved. 

 In conclusion, it’s very important that employers take all reasonable steps to minimise the risk of gender discrimination in the workplace.  Following the guidelines above will prevent most problems, but if issues are raised and things are getting difficult we recommend taking specialist professional advice.  If a solution can be found that satisfies both an aggrieved employee and their employer then a working relationship may be saved and a great deal of wasted time and cost avoided.


This article was kindly provided by:

Minal Backhouse

Managing Director, Backhouse Solicitors

April 2015


Minal Backhouse qualified as a solicitor in 1997. She worked first as a general litigator in and around London before specialising in Employment Law. Minal now heads the legal team at Backhouse Solicitors and has done so since 2005, offering her clients the best possible expertise, service and value for money. 


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