Sexual Stereotyping in the Workplace Exists – But How to Prove It?

Businesses in which women are under-represented in senior roles invite speculation that the imbalance results from discriminatory sexual stereotyping. However, as a case in the context of the banking sector showed, Employment Tribunals (ETs) are required to base their decisions not on surmise but on hard evidence.

The case concerned a female vice-president who worked in a multinational bank’s compliance department. She claimed, amongst other things, that she had been passed over for a promotion due to her sex. Her sex discrimination and harassment claims were upheld by an ET, principally on the basis that a senior manager’s decision to appoint a male external candidate to the role she had coveted was infected by sexual stereotyping.

In its decision, the ET noted that, whilst men in the workplace may be praised for their ambition, forceful personalities and commitment to their jobs, women in the same position may be criticised for their obsession with work. Another common stereotype is that women are more divisive, causing toxic relations by becoming too emotionally involved in office politics. Sexual imbalance in senior positions also tends to be perpetuated by the propensity of men to prefer the views and qualities of other men.

In upholding the bank’s challenge to the ET’s decision, however, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted that it had been no part of the woman’s pleaded case that the manager’s decisions were based on stereotypical sexual assumptions. That suggestion was not the focus of evidence in the case and had been raised for the first time in the ET’s ruling. The bank and its witnesses had thus been deprived of any fair opportunity to respond to the contention. The woman’s sex discrimination and harassment claims were sent back to a fresh ET for reconsideration.

The EAT, however, went on to dismiss the bank’s challenge to the ET’s finding that the woman had suffered maternity leave discrimination. Because of assumptions made as to what women should be doing whilst on maternity leave, she had been discouraged from attending a quarterly review meeting. Advantage of her absence had also been taken in sidelining her and passing significant elements of her role to another employee. There had been no real intention to reinstate those aspects of her work on her return.