Who is protected from sex discrimination?

All teachers and educational professionals have specific protection from discrimination at work on grounds of sex, marriage, civil partnership, pregnancy, maternity and transgender status, and to equal pay under the Equality Act 2010. You are protected whether you are a man or a woman and if you have a gender recognition certificate. Discrimination because you are perceived as being of a sex, or because you associate with someone of a particular sex, will be unlawful. You are protected whether you are permanent, fixed-term, full-time, part-time, supply or agency.

Your colleagues, managers and governors are prohibited from discriminating against you. If you are an agency worker on a day-to-day or longer term contract, your agency and hirers for whom you are working are prohibited from discriminating against you.

Explore our separate factsheets on equal pay and discrimination on grounds of transgender status, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity – available at: neu.org.uk

What is sex discrimination?

Treating you less favourably than another worker in similar circumstances on grounds of sex would be direct sex discrimination.

Applying to all staff a workplace policy or practice, that you and other workers of the same sex cannot comply with because of your sex, would be indirect sex discrimination if it puts you at a disadvantage, unless the employer can justify the impact of the policy or practice.

When am I protected from sex discrimination?

You are protected from sex discrimination before, during and after your employment. There should be no unlawful discrimination in recruitment including advertisements, shortlisting and interview procedures; terms and conditions of employment; access to training; opportunities for promotion; transfers; dismissals; and after your employment has ended, for example, in the provision of references.

What sort of treatment is covered?

Appointing a man, rather than a woman with superior qualifications and more experience, to the post of principal of a secondary school on the assumption that a woman would not have the gravitas to lead the school, would be direct discrimination; bias whether conscious or unconscious can lead to discriminatory decisions.

Refusing to appoint the best qualified applicant to a teaching post in an infant school, on the grounds that he is a man and that a woman would be preferred, and appointing instead a less qualified woman, could be sex discrimination.

An employer’s failure to treat an employee’s menopause in the same way as other medical conditions under its performance management policy could amount to direct sex discrimination.

An unreasonable refusal by a governing body to allow a woman to return to work part-time following maternity leave would be indirect sex discrimination, unless the employer could justify the decision or the impact of it on women in the school.

The Equality Act also imposes into all employment contracts a sex equality clause which states that women doing equal work with a man in the same employment are entitled to equal pay and contractual terms that are no less favourable than the man’s.

Subjecting a teacher to verbal or physical sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful. The NEU has produced a separate factsheet, Sexual Harassment, available on the union website.

What sort of treatment is not covered?

Treatment that has nothing to do with your sex, which the employer can show is wholly and genuinely for a non-discriminatory reason, or treatment which lawfully can be justified by the employer, will not be unlawful. Treatment that you might feel is unfair will not necessarily be discriminatory.

Failing to appoint you to a promoted post which you were qualified to do, on the grounds that another candidate of the opposite sex was better qualified following an objective selection process, would not be unlawful sex discrimination.

Employers may use 'positive action' to encourage women or men to apply to particular posts if women or men, respectively, are under-represented in the workforce or at a particular grade in the workforce. If a woman and a man are as qualified as each other for a post, employers may use ‘tie-break’ provisions to appoint the woman, if women are under-represented at that grade, or the man, if men are under-represented at that grade. Contact the NEU if you need advice on an employer's use of positive action.

Employers sometimes specify that it is an occupational requirement for a post to be held by a woman or a man. Such requirements are more likely to be acceptable in residential education settings. Contact the union if you think such action has been used inappropriately to your disadvantage.

What should I do if I think that I have been discriminated against?

Gather all the written evidence that you have, for example, job adverts, letters, emails and relevant screenshots. Keep a diary of all incidents of less favourable treatment including dates, times, places, the names of any witnesses and your response to the conduct or behaviour.

It is not always immediately clear whether certain treatment is on grounds of sex or for some other genuine reason, so it is sensible to record all the treatment you are concerned about. An employer may or may not intend to discriminate against you or may try to cover up discrimination against you. The employer should work with the union to find out the real reason for the treatment, to stop the treatment if it is discriminatory and to secure appropriate action, for example, to obtain a full written apology or to secure a pay award that you have been denied.

Ask your workplace rep or school or college office for copies of relevant workplace policies, for example, pay policies, capability procedures, redundancy policies. The NEU urges all employers to adopt policies and procedures which prohibit unlawful discrimination, and which allow employers to identify and tackle any discrimination fairly and quickly.

Discuss your concerns with your workplace rep. Your colleagues may have made similar complaints and you may be advised to tackle the issue with them collectively.

You or your rep might decide to contact the union for further advice. The NEU will be able to advise what steps you should take. You may be advised to lodge a formal grievance, or a collective grievance with your colleagues. This may resolve the issue. In rare cases you may be advised to take the matter to an employment tribunal.

The objective in all cases will be to stop any discrimination and allow you to continue working in a professional environment free from discrimination. See NEU contact details at the end of this factsheet.

What if the discrimination or harassment has made me ill?

Follow the advice in the previous answer on gathering information and seeking advice. Keep a record of how you believe discriminatory treatment or harassment has affected your health, eg your symptoms and any absences from work. You are advised to see your GP and to let your employer know in writing that the treatment at work is affecting your health. The union can help you write this letter. If you believe that the stress of discrimination or harassment at work has led to depression, an anxiety disorder or psychosis, you may be suffering from a recognised psychiatric illness. If so, you should seek immediate advice from the union – see contact details at the end of this factsheet.

What should my employer or agency do if I complain about discrimination?

Your employer or agency should investigate your complaint, stop any discrimination, take appropriate action and prevent it from happening again to you or someone else. Employers in the education sector should comply with the public sector equality duty to eliminate discrimination and advance equality.

What if my employer treats me worse after I have raised the issue?

You should contact your workplace rep if you are subjected to detrimental treatment in retaliation or as punishment for raising a complaint of discrimination. This is called 'victimisation' and is prohibited by the Equality Act.

What more can I do to protect myself and colleagues from discrimination at work?

Employers in the education sector have a statutory duty to be proactive in eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity for staff and pupils. They must assess the impact of their policies and procedures on the people affected by them and take steps to remove any barriers that come to light where it is proportionate to do so. Contact your workplace rep, branch secretary or local equality officer if you want to get involved in reviewing the equality impact of policies and procedures in your workplace.

Make sure that you receive information about NEU equality events and conferences and about the equality constituency seat elections for the national executive. If you have not told the union about your ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability status, you may miss out on important information. Update your membership details to ensure you are fully informed. The information that you provide will remain strictly confidential. The data will form the basis of anonymous statistical reports which will help identify trends in workplaces and barriers to participation in the union's structures.

You are not alone in this union

When you read through this document you may have questions about what happens in your particular school or workplace, and there may be collective issues that affect other members.

In most circumstances, you should initially discuss the matter with your workplace rep, as they will know whether similar concerns have been raised by other members. If you do not have a rep at the moment, it would be a good idea to get members together to elect one. Further advice on this is available at: neu.org.uk/becoming-a-rep

Although you may sometimes feel that you are the only person affected by or concerned about a particular issue, in reality this is seldom the case. Any difficulties you may experience are likely to be linked to wider conditions at your workplace and as a member of the NEU you have the advantage of being able to act collectively with your colleagues. This should give you the confidence of knowing that you have the weight of the union behind you.

Further information

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
Information on sex equality

Trades Union Congress (TUC)
Guidance on gender equality

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)
Guidance on sex discrimination