Sex discrimination at work
The recent case of Mr Marsh v Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust made headlines last month when it was held by an Employment Tribunal that a male employee had been discriminated against because of his sex when a female manager told him to “man up” in front of other female colleagues.
The case is an interesting example of a male employee bringing a claim of sex discrimination based on treatment received from female co-workers.
Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful direct sex discrimination for a person (A) to treat another (B) less favourably than A treats or would treat others because of sex.
Peter Marsh was employed as a Health Visitor by Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (“the Trust”) and worked as part of the Cheetham and Crumpsall health visiting team, where he was the only male employee in the team.
In May 2018, Mr Marsh had a falling out with a Nursery Nurse, Ms Whittall, after he asked her to assist him with some work and she ignored him. As Mr Marsh was a band 6 and Ms Whittall was a band 4, he was entitled to call upon her to help, and Mr Marsh reminded Ms Whittall of this.
As a result of this altercation, Mr Marsh and Ms Whittall complained about each other to the Head of Service, Lisa Sanchez. A mediation meeting subsequently took place, which was conducted by Ms Sanchez. After the meeting Mr Marsh told Ms Sanchez that he felt she sided with Ms Whittall.
The next day, at a team meeting, Ms Sanchez asked for a show of hands to indicate “who’s in Pete’s union and who agrees with Pete”. This was in reference to the fact that Mr Marsh was a trade union representative and he had recently raised concerns about a pilot scheme that union members feared would add to an already heavy workload. Mr Marsh felt her enquiry was aggressive, confrontational and that its intention was to divide the team against him because she presented the issue as a matter of taking sides.
A short while later, in July 2018, at another team meeting, Mr Marsh claimed that Ms Sanchez ended the meeting saying “Goodbye ladies”, ignoring his presence completely.
Over the course of the following months, tensions escalated among the team due to workloads and the attempts of management to change the working pattern of term time Nursery Nurses. In January 2019, a team meeting was held by Ms Sanchez to discuss the reshuffle of Nursery Nurses during which team members criticised Mr Marsh (who was not present), saying their voices were not being heard in trade union meetings with management. No attempt was made to challenge or counter these concerns by management (Ms Sanchez), effectively allowing the team members to continue to be negative about Mr Marsh and his trade union role.
Following the meeting, Ms Sanchez reported on the team meeting to her managers and painted a detrimental picture of Mr Marsh, saying that there was a breakdown in relationship between him and another nursery nurse and that trade union duties were having an impact on the team resulting in a “strong feeling of disgruntlement” about Mr Marsh, and another representative, as trade union representatives.
Tensions in the team eventually culminated at a team meeting in February 2019 when a team member raised concerns about the office atmosphere. The discussion became heated, with most team members involved, some of whom directed their ire towards Mr Marsh. At some point, Ms Sanchez tried to regain control and said that people could only speak when spoken to. When Mr Marsh objected to this, Ms Sanchez lost her temper and told him, “You need to man up!”
The meeting ended and Mr Marsh subsequently complained about the way he had been spoken to by Ms Sanchez, saying he felt bullied by Ms Sanchez and by a Nursery Nurse. He also said that, as a lone male in the workplace, he felt that he took a lot of abuse.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Marsh submitted a ‘Dignity at Work’ complaint about bullying and harassment by several female staff including Ms Sanchez. At the same time, some of Mr Marsh’s female colleagues raised complaints about him. These were eventually dismissed on the basis they were without foundation, but not until after a prolonged investigation.
When Mr Marsh’s complaints of bullying and harassment were dismissed, he brought claims against the Trust, which included a number of claims of sex discrimination.
The Tribunal upheld a number of Mr Marsh’s claims of direct sex discrimination. The Tribunal concluded that the “Goodbye Ladies” comment was made deliberately by Ms Sanchez to exclude Mr Marsh because of his gender. The Tribunal also found that Mr Marsh had been directly discriminated against because of his sex when Ms Sanchez told him to ‘man-up’ in a room of over 10 women.
Further, the Tribunal accepted Mr Marsh’s evidence that he had been the butt of jokes about being the only man in the team and that, over time, he had grown tired of them and become irritated that his sex was highlighted unnecessarily. The Tribunal found that this sexist culture was tolerated by his immediate management who took no steps to deter his colleagues and went on to conclude that Mr Marsh had been subjected to a continuing course of discriminatory conduct, culminating in the pursuit by the Trust of an investigation into wholly unfounded allegations made against him.
Points to note
As this case demonstrates, sex discrimination claims are not exclusively brought by women and male employees can also find themselves treated less favourably because of their sex. In this case, it was the use of deliberately exclusionary language – “Goodbye ladies” – and derisory comments that would not have been made to a woman – “man-up” – that led the Tribunal to conclude that the employee had been unlawfully discriminated against because of his sex.
The case highlights how important it is to foster an inclusive culture in your workplace where discriminatory language or behaviour – in whatever form it takes – is not tolerated and is dealt with promptly and appropriately. The first step to achieving this is to provide training to all staff so that they can identify what behaviours are not acceptable and understand what they need to do if they witness or experience inappropriate behaviour, so that it is not allowed to continue unchecked.
If you have any questions about any of the issues in this article or would like to know about the training we offer on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, please contact a member of the Real Employment Law Team.