When does an office rule stop being a dress code and become discrimination?

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The Independent Online

AT THE smart, modern offices of the Professional Golfers' Association there are lots of smart, modern women.

AT THE smart, modern offices of the Professional Golfers' Association there are lots of smart, modern women.

From the pleasant receptionist who signs you in, to the efficient secretary who glides effortlessly down the stairs to meet you, it seems that everywhere you turn there is a woman. It is a pleasant surprise, given the rather stuffy, male-dominated image of golf.

But among the dresses and fitted skirts worn by the PGA's female employees lies a clue that all may not be what it seems: none of them are wearing trousers. It is not that all the women here in rural Warwickshire choose to wear skirts to work every day; rather that, at the offices of the PGA, trousers are banned - unless, that is, you are a man.

Such a discrepancy has been the key feature of a claim for sexual discrimination this week by a former training manager who said she was persistently bullied by male colleagues, causing her to resign. Judy Owen, 39, who spent just three weeks at the PGA before signing off sick, told an employment tribunal: "I felt my time there was harassing, bullying, demeaning and threatening."

The alleged discrimination took place earlier this year in the PGA's swish headquarters at the Belfry golf course, the site selected for the 2001 Ryder Cup. Here, Ms Owen, whose case has been brought by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), said she was referred to as a "pleb", and overheard her boss calling professional female golfers dikes and lesbians. The atmosphere was "blatantly sexist".

But the incident that perhaps caused her most offence was when she was ordered to go home and change out of her grey trouser suit into a skirt. "Stop playing games," her boss, Gerry Paton, is alleged to have said. Soon after, Ms Owen went off sick, never to return.

The 98-year-old PGA, which represents the interests of 5,000 professional golfers in Britain and 1,000 overseas, has dismissed the allegations. It has, it admits, a dress code for women which allows trousers only when they are in the field. But, equally, it has a dress code for men who must wear a jacket and tie. (Men, in addition, are not allowed to wear skirts.)

"I would say there is much more freedom for the women here than for men in what they can wear," the chief executive, Sandy Jones, explained, leading the way around the PGA's training complex where would-be professionals get advice on everything from putting to publicity. "Golf is perceived as being a sexist sport but I don't want people to think that the PGA is discriminatory."

He may be too late. The case has focussed attention on a sport which is only slowly shedding its image as an élitist pastime where women are welcome but only on certain days, and then only if they don not make a fuss.

Campaigners note that Ms Owen's claim is not isolated. Two other cases of females claiming they were ordered to wear trousers may soon be filed. In Gateshead, Jo Hale, 14, is threatening court action against Whickham Comprehensive after governors insisted she wear a skirt. And two of Eurostar's female security guards are considering legal action after being sent home from work for wearing trousers.

"It is ridiculous," said a source in the EOC. "Here we are a month away from the Millennium and we have a situation where women are being told they cannot wear trousers.

"We are living in a society where we don't mind David Beckham wearing a sarong but where a woman manager in a company is sent home to change."

The tribunal has yet to rule on Ms Owen's case and until then she is keeping silent. However, the PGA has wasted no time in putting its case. It claims that its 45 female employees are happy not wearing trousers. Many of them - all wearing skirts - attended the hearing to support the association, tutting loudly at evidence they did not agree with. "It's all a lot of rubbish," one whispered during the final summation by Ms Owen's solicitor.

Whether other women associated with the game are so convinced is less clear. Three women ignoring the rain to practise their swings on the Belfry's driving range yesterday afternoon said they had heard of Ms Owen's case and supported her.

"Of course the world of golf is sexist," said Jennifer Budd, 36, connecting crisply with a ball that flew towards the pin. "But tell me where isn't. Until two years ago we had a rule at my office where women had to wear a skirt." And what did she do about that? "I used to deliberately wear trousers."