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 Golfer's Association there are lots of smart, modern female employees.

Given that there are no staff uniforms, the women all dress differently, except in one obvious respect: none of them wear trousers. It is not that all the women of the PGA choose to wear skirts to work every day, rather that trousers are banned here - unless, that is, you happen to be a man.

This week, the discrepancy has been a key feature of a claim for sexual discrimination by a former training manager who said that she was persistently bullied by her 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 earlier this week: "I felt my time there was harassing, bullying, demeaning and threatening. I have never felt so abused in a working environment."

The alleged discrimination took place earlier this year at the PGA's headquarters located at the prestigious Belfry golf course in Warwickshire, famous around the world and the site selected for the 2001 Ryder Cup. It was there that Ms Owen said she was referred to as a "pleb", and overheard her boss referring to professional women golfers as dykes and lesbians. The atmosphere was "blatantly sexist", said Ms Owen, whose case as been brought by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

But the incident that perhaps caused most offence to the former training manager for British Airways, was when she was ordered to go home and change out of the grey trouser suit she was wearing into a skirt.

"Stop playing games," she was told, by her boss, Gerry Paton. 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 noisily dismissed the allegations. It has, it admits, a dress code for women whereby trousers are only allowed if they are in the field, but equally it has a dress code for men, who have to wear a jacket and tie. (Men, in addition, are not allowed to wear skirts.)

The PGA's chief executive, Sandy Jones, said yesterday: "I would say there is much more freedom for women here than for men in what they can wear. We all look the same, but they have a great degree of choice."

Mr Jones, named along with Mr Paton in Ms Owen's action, added: "Golf is perceived as being a sexist, elitist sport but I don't want people to think that the PGA is discriminatory."

That may be too late. The case - widely covered by the media - has again focused attention on a sport which is only slowly shedding its image as a stuffy, elitist pastime, where women are welcome but only on certain days, and only then if they don't make a fuss.

But on a wider level, campaigners point out that Ms Owen's claim is not isolated. There are two other cases, in which legal action is pending, where females claim they have been told to wear trousers.

In Tyne and Wear, 14-year old Jo Hale is threatening court action against, Whickham Comprehensive, near Gateshead, after governors insisted she wear a skirt to school.

Meanwhile two female security guards at Eurostar are considering legal action after being sent home from work for wearing trousers and told not to return unless they wore skirts. The company claimed that unless they wore skirts, passengers would not be able to tell they were women.

An EOC source said: "It is ridiculous. Here we are, a month or so from the millennium, with a situation where women are being told they cannot wear trousers, while they are permitted for men.

"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 told she has to go home and change.

"Wearing trousers is not really the issue here, it is indicative of a much deeper problem to do with the position of women in the work place and stereotyping."

The tribunal is still considering its decision on Ms Owen's case and until then she is keeping silent. However, the PGA has wasted no time in putting its case and claims its 45 female employees - half of its staff - are happy not wearing trousers.

It points out that a number of its female staff - all wearing skirts - attended the hearing in Birmingham to support the association. The PGA admits, however, that all the women who went were given time off work, fully-paid, to attend.