Sex Discrimination and Harassment at Work
In the recent case of Kalam v The Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, the Employment Tribunal awarded the Claimant, a female firearms officer, £30,000 in compensation after the Respondent was found liable for sex discrimination and harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Among other incidents, the Claimant was stripped down to her underwear during training, forced to be the ‘poster girl’ for her unit and given unsuitable PPE to wear, compared to her male colleagues.
The Claimant was one of seven women in her Firearms Operations Unit (“FOU”) compared with 250 men. Although she rose quickly through the ranks from when she joined the FOU in January 2012, she was driven out of the unit by a toxic culture and inadequate responses to her frequently raised concerns. The Claimant issued her Employment Tribunal claim on 12 May 2021, which consisted of direct and indirect sex discrimination, harassment related to sex, victimisation and detriment for making protected disclosures.
A matter of days before the hearing, the Respondent conceded liability in full to all the Claimant’s claims, and the final hearing became a hearing to determine what compensation there should be.
The Claimant had, during her time in the FOU, tried to escalate her concerns relating to the incidents and conduct internally. In response, her complaints were dismissed, instead justifying the behaviour as banter and humour. Under the Equality Act 2010, however, when considering whether actions amount to harassment, it does not matter whether the behaviour towards the person was intended or not, or whether it was intended to be a joke.
Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature and employers must do all they reasonably can to protect staff from sexual harassment and take steps to prevent it happening in the workplace. To constitute sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either violated the person’s dignity (whether intended or not) or created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them (whether intended or not).
Hostile work environments, offensive jokes, derogatory remarks and exclusionary behaviours are, unfortunately, sill prevalent within the workplace. According to a 2022 survey of 6,000 workers across the construction, education, healthcare and technology industries, 72% of women within these sectors encountered inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues.
Failure to provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”)
The Respondent also admitted liability for direct and indirect sex discrimination due to their failure to provide suitable PPE including appropriate female ballistic body armour. Despite the dangerous nature of the Claimant’s role, she was told there was no ballistic armour for women and that she would have to wear men’s uniform and PPE even though it failed to fit properly and made her feel unsafe.
Under the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 2022, employers have a duty to ensure that suitable PPE is provided to their employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where that risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective. Coupled with the Equality Act 2010 which requires employers to treat women no less favourably than men, clearly there would be an issue where the PPE does not adequately fit female employees.
In many instances, the wrong PPE can increase risk from injury and prevents people from doing their job properly. A report by the Trades Union Congress into PPE and Women found that only 29% of women who responded said that the PPE they use is specifically designed for women, meaning that many people found it was not suitable for the purpose. With the failure of employers to provide suitable PPE for women, in particular, across many industries including the care, construction and healthcare sectors, this could lead, as it did in Mrs Kalam’s case, to claims against employers.
Lessons for employers
This case serves as a reminder to employers about the importance of fostering a respectful and inclusive workplace environment. In doing so, it is crucial for employers to acknowledge and respond promptly to employees’ complaints and concerns. When interviewed by the BBC, the Claimant said that people had been “let down” by managers and that there had been a “litany” of “flawed” disciplinary processes. Dismissing incidents as mere banter or humour is not acceptable and can lead to legal repercussions. To mitigate the risk, training should therefore be provided within organisations to educate employees of all levels of what constitutes harassment and discrimination.
Secondly, providing adequate PPE tailored to employees’ needs is fundamental. Employees should feel safe at work and should feel secure while performing their duties. In this case, the PPE was not adequate because the Claimant was a woman, and it was therefore discrimination in the Respondent’s failure to provide this.
How we can help
Ultimately, this case shows, once again, that more needs to be done in certain sectors to ensure women and men are treated the same in the workplace. For further information, or to discuss the issues raised within this case, please contact us to speak to a member of our Employment team.
This reflects the law and market position at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought in relation to a specific matter.
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