The law on sex discrimination at work

Which laws govern discrimination on grounds of a person’s sex in the workplace?

The law relating to discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of a person’s sex is contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970 

On 8 April 2010 the Equalities Act 2010 was passed. So as to enable people and organisations affected by the Equalities Act 2010 time to prepare for the new law, only a few provisions of the Act, however, came into force that day. It is currently anticipated that most of the main provisions of the Act will come into force in October 2010, although since there has been a change of government since the Act was passed this is currently not clear. 

When the Equalities Act 2010 does come into force the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970 will be repealed in their entirety.

What acts are prohibited by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975?

Discrimination by employers

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful to discriminate, whether directly or indirectly, against an individual as an applicant for employment or as an employee on grounds of their sex. The Act covers discrimination against women, men, persons who have undergone gender reassignment and married persons of either sex. No account is, however, to be taken of the special treatment afforded to women in connection with pregnancy or childbirth.

Discrimination by principals against women

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful for a principal to discriminate in a manner specified by the Act against a woman who is employed not by the principal himself but by another person, who supplies the individual under a contract made with the principal.

Discrimination against women receiving training

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful, in the case of a woman seeking or undergoing training which would help her gain employment, for any person who provides, or makes arrangements for the provision of or facilities for such training to discriminate against her in a manner specified by the Act.

Discrimination by employment agencies against women

Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 it is unlawful for an employment agency to discriminate against a woman in a manner specified by the Act.


It is also unlawful, under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, for a person to induce, or attempt to induce, a person to do one of the above acts by providing or offering to provide him with any benefit or subjecting or threatening to subject him to any detriment. 

It is also unlawful for a person who has authority over another person or in accordance with whose wishes that other person is accustomed to act, to instruct him to do any act which is unlawful or procure or attempt to procure the doing by him of any such act. 

Where a person knowingly aids another person to do an act made unlawful by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 they are treated as having done the unlawful act themselves.

Are all discriminatory acts prohibited?

The following are exceptions to the requirements of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975?

Genuine occupational requirements

The Act does not prevent discrimination on grounds of sex where there is a genuine occupational requirement. This may apply, for example, to some jobs in a single-sex school or an acting job that needs a man or a woman.

Occupational pension schemes

There are certain exceptions relating to occupational pension schemes.

Monies paid under a contract of employment

There is an exception where there is any provision for the payment of money which, if the woman in question were given the employment, would be included, directly or indirectly, in the contract under which she was employed.

Certain benefits, facilities and services provided by an employer

There is an exception relating to benefits consisting of the payment of money when the provision of such benefits is regulated by the woman’s contract of employment. 

There is also an exception relating to certain benefits, facilities or services if the employer is concerned with the provision, whether for payment of not, of benefits, facilities or services of that description to the public, or to a section of the public comprising the woman in question.

Gender reassignment

There are certain exceptions relating to persons who have undergone gender reassignment.


The Sex Discrimination Act does not render unlawful any acts done for the purpose of safeguarding national security, or specified acts done for the purposes of the protection of women or acts which are specifically permitted by other legislation.

How does the Equal Pay Act 1970 protect women in the workplace?

The Equal Pay Act 1970 provides that if the terms of a contract under which a woman is employed do not include, directly or indirectly, an equality clause, they are deemed to include one.