Unfair? Go on, prove it

Bringing a sex discrimination case is costly, traumatic, and you'll probably lose. Is it worth it? Emma Cook reports

You have been passed over for two promotions while a male colleague (who joined the company after you) steams up the corporate ladder. He's been on more training courses than you and also plays golf with the boss. Funny that. You're both at the same level but he's on a bigger salary. If you were a man, you're convinced you would be treated differently. Yes, it's unfair and it's almost certainly discrimination, but how could you ever prove it? Keep a diary and record when the exclusion takes place? "Tuesday evening: my boss asked 'him' to the pub to discuss this afternoon's staff meeting" is hardly the stuff of courtroom drama.

Yet, any solicitor will say it's the accumulation of minor details like these that can build up a case of real sex discrimination. They will also tell you that the reality of trying to pursue such a case is harrowing, costly and time-consuming. Would it really be worth the hassle and the heartache to go to such lengths? Much easier, you may well decide, to bide your time and find another job.

PC Paula Wilson has retreated to lick her wounds after losing her sex discrimination case last week. Her defeat will have confirmed the fears of other women who may have considered taking similar action but chose not to stick their head above the parapet. As the first female officer to take a case of sex bias against Northumbria police to tribunal stage, it is a fair bet that she did not make the decision lightly. Yet in her second week at court, she withdrew her allegations that she had been overlooked for overtime and training. Like many other women, she may not have realised just how harrowing the whole experience would be.

"It was such an uphill battle, I didn't feel it was worth it," says Wendy, 35, who was a marketing manager for a travel company. Two years ago, she complained about her boss who, she argued, passed her over for promotion and training when he discovered she was three months pregnant. "After I told him, he virtually ignored me and began to give my male colleague all the best projects and biggest accounts. I wasn't part of a union so I knew I'd have no support."

Wendy consulted a solicitor. "She advised me exactly what I could expect in court, how long it could take and the sort of detailed evidence I'd have to produce. I went away and thought about it for a long time. I realised what a minefield the whole thing was and I got scared about my employment chances after I left his company. I just couldn't go through with it," she admits.

If a woman has a really strong discrimination case, her best bet is to ask the Equal Opportunities Commission to take it on. The problem is that they are underfunded - last year they could only afford to accept around 70 cases. That leaves the majority of women fighting as lone individuals. Only the very strong examples - such as PC Kay Kellaway, who won her case against Thames Valley police in September - really stand a chance. Others find it more difficult to fight back. Cydena Fleming, a police inspector, was described in the papers as "a broken shadow of her former self... gaunt and receiving medical treatment," after she took her employers to court. Her case is still pending, but you wonder if the litigation is really worth the emotional trauma.

Solicitor Catherine Tailby has wide experience of sex discrimination cases, and confirms that many women are discouraged from speaking out and confronting the system. She thinks this is understandable. "I have a lot of queries about maternity issues. Yes, a lot of women do feel put off from taking it to court. It is intimidating. People can say things that will be unpalatable. They will fight it out in the open and downplay your abilities to prove it wasn't sex discrimination."

According to the latest tribunal statistics, only 5.9 per cent of sex discrimination cases presented were successful during 1995-96. Forty per cent were withdrawn and a further 40 were settled by ACAS. Michelle Sedgwick, legal officer at the trade union Unison, says, "There are hurdles. One problem is the way cases affect people. It's obviously a painful and distressing experience. It strikes at the core of one's identity. Sometimes a tribunal will categorise women as being hysterical. The perception is still that women who complain about things are a problem."

Another obstacle for women, says Tailby, is the "burden of proof". It means they must prove their claims, rather than the employerhaving to prove he wasn't sexually discriminating against her. "There is talk at a European level of reversing this law," she says. The focus of proof could switch from accuser to accused. If this happened, certainly the woman would feel less victimised by the process. As it stands, the unspoken message can often be that her word is somehow in doubt; that she can't be trusted.

Tailby says, "I've had people who've collapsed because the whole experience was so distressing. They couldn't stand it any more, especially if they're suing an employer and still working with them."

That's if you're lucky enough to keep a job. Jean, 34, who worked in finance, was sacked last year when she accused her boss of discrimination. For a long time she was passed over for promotion, then her employer offered her a new job with one simple proviso - that she slept with him. "I really never thought I'd be in this situation ever in my life," says Jean, now hoping to settle her case out of court. "Basically, they want to go through your knicker drawer. It's all right in the States where you can be awarded loads of money, but here the risk of losing and paying court costs just isn't worth it." Neither was the very real threat of losing her professional reputation. "If I was leaving the country, fine, but if you are looking for other jobs in the same field then don't even think about it. Apart from that, the whole thing would take too long."

Five years down the line and Katie, 42, who used to be an engineer, is still fighting her sex discrimination case. As a single mother, she was forced to leave her job when they changed her working hours and refused to remain flexible. "There was no chance of keeping my job. They just didn't want women with children working there. It's been re-designed for single people. It's like rape, in that a woman must prove that she's been attacked rather than the rapist proving he didn't commit the crime. Why is it up to us to prove it?" One of the worst moments during the tribunal was hearing herself described by her boss. "He tried to portray me as a weak women and said he used to comfort me when I was crying - as if I'd ever behave like that. It made my stomach turn."

When a case gets this personal and confrontational you wonder whether the process has failed the victim before it's begun. Jo Gardner, campaigns manager at the Industrial Society, believes litigation isn't always the answer. "Let's have fewer court cases," she argues, "and better practice. It's not the answer to make case-bringing easier. It's better to explain the benefits of being good practitioners to begin with, and to get back to business with the least amount of aggro."

Except that "better practice" often results from legal precedents. Katie says, "I'm fighting for what is rightfully mine - it makes me feel good." She still believes that however daunting a tribunal can be, if you succeed it's still the best and most effective means of setting the record straight.

Names and some personal details have been changed

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Middleware Support Analyst

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Senior Java Developer/Designer

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

    Domino Developer and Administrator

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

    IT Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full or Part Time ICT Teacher ...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?