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Sex discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against employees because of their sex.

Sex discrimination against men is just as unlawful as sex discrimination against women. Also, it is unlawful for a woman to discriminate against another woman because of her sex, and for a man to discriminate against another man because of his sex.

View or download the new Acas guide pdf icon Sex discrimination: key points for the workplace [472kb]. You can also download our pdf icon Sex discrimination: obligations for employers [62kb] fact sheet and pdf icon Sex discrimination: top ten myths [60kb].

Key points

There are four main types of discrimination.

Direct discrimination

Is when someone is treated differently and not as well as other people because of their sex. For example, advertising a job and stating it is better suited to female applicants. It breaks down into three different sorts of treating someone 'less favourably' because of:

  • their own sex (ordinary direct discrimination)
  • their perceived  sex (direct discrimination by perception)
  • their association with someone of a particular sex (direct discrimination by association).

Indirect discrimination

Can occur where a workplace rule, practice or procedure is applied to all employees, but disadvantages those of a particular sex. For example, a requirement that job applicants must be six feet tall could be met by significantly fewer women than men.

An employee or job applicant claiming indirect discrimination must show how they have been personally disadvantaged, as well as how the discrimination has or would disadvantage other employees of the same sex.

In some limited circumstances, indirect discrimination may be justified in law if it is necessary for the business to work. However, employers should note this can be a difficult process.


This breaks down into three different types:

  • 'unwanted conduct' related to a person's sex causing a distressing, humiliating or offensive environment for them
  • 'unwanted conduct' of a sexual nature - this is sexual harassment
  • less favourable treatment of an employee because they have rejected sexual harassment or been the victim of it.


Treating an employee unfairly who has made or supported a complaint about sex discrimination.

Other considerations

Employers should ensure they have policies in place to prevent discrimination in:

  • recruitment and selection
  • determining pay, terms and conditions
  • training and development
  • selection for promotion
  • dismissal
  • selection for redundancy.

In very limited circumstances, there are some jobs which can require that the job-holder is a man or a woman. This is known as an 'occupational requirement'. One example is where the job holder is likely to work in circumstances where members of one sex are in a state of undress and might reasonably object to the presence of a member of the opposite sex, such as in a bra-fitting service.

Making a claim of Sex discrimination

If an employee feels they been discriminated against, they will be able to bring a claim to an employment tribunal. However, it's best they talk to their employer first to try to sort out the matter informally.

Further information is available from Ministry of Justice - Employment Tribunal guidance.

Through the Acas Helpline you can get advice on specific problems, and explore alternatives to an employment tribunal claim, such as Mediation, where appropriate.

Protected characteristics video

This video introduces and explains the nine protected characteristics.

Training courses - did you know?

Acas run practical training courses to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and to create more productive workplaces.

Click to view Acas training and course dates in your area for Skills for supervisors, Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010, Employment law update and Recruitment and induction.

Equality and diversity - Acas business solutions

We can visit your organisation to help you understand what needs to be done to address a range of issues related to equality and diversity and then work with you to develop practical solutions. For example we can help you develop dignity at work or bullying and harassment policies and procedures.

Find out more from Equality, Diversity & Inclusion: how Acas can help or let us know how we can help by completing our Customer contact form.

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