Mind your language!

Photo by Ilya Ilford on Unsplash

“Great big girl’s blouse!” or “a girly swot”. Harmless insults; a bit of banter; or perhaps an example of sexist language? Deborah Haynes, a journalist with Sky News, certainly took the view that these remarks were sexist in nature – even though men were the targets (see the link below).

https://news.sky.com/story/sky-views-girly-swot-big-girls-blouse-are-sexist-jibes-and-shouldnt-be-used-by-the-pm-11804690

The first of these remarks was uttered allegedly by Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP in the House of Commons last week and directed towards the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP. The second remark was in a memo written by the Prime Minister in which he was critical of David Cameron (one of his predecessors).

Mr Johnson is well known for his colourful language in both print and in his speeches, but he was called out last week in the House of Commons by the Labour MP, Tammanjeet Singh Dhesi who accused him in very blunt terms of making racist remarks about Muslim women who chose to wear the Islamic form of dress known as the burka as an outward sign of their religious beliefs and cultural background.

Mr Tammanjeet drew on his own experiences as a Sikh and the kinds of derogatory remarks that he had to endure. His speech was received very warmly on the Opposition benches of the House of Commons.

On the other hand, Mr Johnson attempted a defence of his language by saying that he had merely spoken up in favour of the good old fashioned liberal value of freedom of speech. It was not an entirely convincing performance from the Prime Minister and far from his finest hour at the despatch box.

The Equality Act 2010 recognises various forms of prohibited conduct such as direct discrimination (Section 13) and harassment (Section 26). Sexist, sectarian and homophobic remarks may well be taken as examples of direct discrimination. A sustained campaign of bullying to which an individual (with a particular protected characteristic) is subjected may amount to harassment.

It will be sensible for employers particularly to spell out to employees what is acceptable (and what is not) in terms of the kinds of language or behaviour in the work-place. If employers do nothing to check discriminatory remarks such as racist or sexist insults, there is a real danger that they could be held vicariously liable.

Had Mr Johnson been a mere mortal, some of his remarks may have come back to haunt him. Employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those employees who have committed acts of discrimination. After all, they are merely protecting their position by not leaving themselves open to the threat of legal action by the victims.

From the employee’s perspective, engaging in offensive language could give the employer the right to treat this type of behaviour as gross misconduct. It should be recalled that, in terms of Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1998, misconduct committed by an employee can be punished by dismissal and such a termination of the employment contract may be entirely reasonable in the circumstances.

In short, no one should have to work in a place where there is a hostile, degrading or intimidating environment. Racist or sexist remarks can be highly suggestive of such a working environment if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged. Maybe in future the Prime Minister would do well to mind his language.

Links to articles about the Prime Minister’s colourful turn of phrase can be found below:

https://news.sky.com/video/share-11802095

http://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-branded-david-cameron-girly-swot-leaked-document-reveals-11803807

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 7 September 2019

Don’t do it!

george-pagan-iii-624417-unsplash.jpg

Don’t do what? Get pregnant, it would seem if you’re a female athlete who receives sponsorship from one of the planet’s most visible sporting brands.

Just this week, allegations have been made by a number of female athletes that Nike withdrew sponsorship after they discovered that they were pregnant.

Now, if the allegations are true, this would certainly represent an example of unlawful, less favourable treatment. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination are prohibited in terms of Sections 17 (non-work cases) and 18 (work cases) of the Equality Act 2010. They are very specific forms of sex discrimination (a person’s sex or gender is a protected characteristic in terms of Section 11 of the Act).

In 2019, you might have been forgiven for thinking that pregnancy discrimination was a thing of the past…

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975

The (now repealed) Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which was held up as a significant advance for woman’s equality, was fundamentally flawed when it addressed the issue of pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

When the Act of 1975 was first introduced, cases involving alleged discrimination connected to a woman’s pregnancy encountered an unexpected problem, which the Parliamentary draftsmen had not taken into account: how could it be valid to attempt a comparison between that of a pregnant woman’s situation with that of a man? A strict application of the legislation meant that this was not a valid comparison and, therefore, many of the earliest sex discrimination claims failed because some judges applied the literal approach to the interpretation of the Act – even if this made the law something of an ass and, more seriously, led to blatant injustice.

This Act made it very clear that central to the success of any claim was the complainant’s ability to compare his or her allegedly less favourable treatment to an actual or hypothetical male/female comparator. If he or she could not do this, the claim would fail. A woman claiming that she had suffered discrimination on the grounds of her sex must have been able to carry out a like with like comparison.

The woman’s circumstances and those of her male comparator must have been broadly the same (they should not have been materially different) otherwise a meaningful comparison could not be made.

The European Union

This situation really continued into the 1990s and, it was only when the Court of Justice of the European Union resolved the matter in Dekker v Stichting Vormingscentrum voor Jonge Volwassen Plus (1991), that things started to improve. Dekker clearly established that there was no requirement for pregnant women to identify a male comparator when they were alleging that they had experienced unlawful, less favourable treatment.

The Equality Act 2010 now, in theory, affords pregnant women and mothers much stronger legal protection than the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 ever did, but yet examples of pregnancy and maternity discrimination still arise.

It was as recently as 2016 that the Equalities and Women Committee of the House of Commons exposed the shocking extent of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the UK. Maria Miller MP, chair of the Committee stated:

Our 2016 report laid bare the significant discrimination and poor treatment faced by 54,000 pregnant women and mothers at work each year.”

A link to the Committee’s Report can be found below:

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/women-and-equalities-committee/news-parliament-2017/pregnancy-maternity-discrimination-2-statement-17-19/

Just do it?

Being deadly serious, the above slogan (of Nike) will hardly sit well with those female athletes in receipt of sponsorship from the company. That said, should we really be surprised that stories of this nature emerge when read against the Report of the Women and Equalities Committee?

A link to the article about alleged pregnancy discrimination as reported by Sky News can be found below:

Pregnant athletes ‘punished’ by Nike, says champion British runner Jo Pavey
http://news.sky.com/story/pregnant-athletes-punished-by-nike-says-champion-british-runner-jo-pavey-11721817

In 2018, Nike was praised for endorsing Colin Kaepernick, the former African American Football star who had actively campaigned to raise awareness of racial inequality. Now with these sex discrimination allegations, is it a case of one step forward, ten steps back for Nike?

Postscript

On 26 May 2019, The Independent reported that Nike had promised not to impose financial penalties on those female athletes who became pregnant and who were in receipt of sponsorship from the corporation. This was undoubtedly due to the considerable, adverse publicity which the story had generated around the world.

A link to the article in The Independent can be found below:


https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.260519/data/8930341/index.html

On 17 August 2019, the BBC reported that Nike had removed the offensive clause from its contracts with female athletes.

A link to the story can be found below:

Allyson Felix: Nike changes policy for pregnant athletes

Six-time Olympic gold medallist Allyson Felix says female athletes will “no longer be financially penalised for having a child” after Nike changed its sponsorship contracts.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 17 & 26 May and 17 August 2019

Braveheart?

Photo by Petia Koleva on Unsplash

In a previous post published on 22 January 2019 (Philosophical beliefs (or you’d better believe it!), I drew attention to the ongoing of Employment Tribunal case of Christopher McEleny against the Ministry of Defence.

Mr McEleny is an SNP councillor for Inverclyde and some time ago he ran for the Party’s Deputy Leadership post. In his day job, Mr McEleny was employed as an electrician by the UK Ministry of Defence at one of its sites in Beith, Ayrshire.

When his employer found out that Mr McEleny was running for the Deputy Leadership post, he claims that was pulled in to a meeting and grilled about his views on Trident amongst other things. He also had his security clearance revoked and was suspended. Although he was reinstated, Mr McEleny later decided to leave his job with the MOD.

Mr McEleny brought a claim under Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 alleging that he had suffered direct discrimination on the grounds of his philosophical beliefs i.e. his belief in Scottish independence as a concept which forms and influences many of his decisions in life.

At a Preliminary Hearing in July 2018, the Employment Tribunal Judge ruled that belief in Scottish independence could constitute a philosophical belief which was capable of being protected under the Equality Act 2010. It should be noted that Mr McEleny was able to demonstrate that many of the decisions that he makes and the ways in which he chooses to live his life are firmly based on his belief in Scottish independence. It is important to appreciate that him merely being a member of the SNP was not enough: you have demonstrate that you live by your beliefs.

The Ministry of Defence disagreed with this finding and appealed. Employment Tribunal Frances Eccles has now considered the appeal and has decided that a belief in Scottish independence can constitute a protected characteristic for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

Mr McEleny’s claim must still proceed to a full Employment Tribunal Hearing in which he will have to demonstrate that he was subjected to unlawful discrimination by reason of his philosophical beliefs.

A link to an article about the latest turn in Mr McEleny’s case can be found below:

https://www.holyrood.com/articles/news/judge-upholds-ruling-belief-independence-protected-under-equality-law-religion

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 12 March 2019