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Tim Hunt sexism row – the implications for employers

Commuters crossing a busy streetNobel laureate winner Sir Tim Hunt caused outrage after making sexist comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea recently.

Speaking at the convention, Hunt commented, ‘let me tell you about my trouble with girls… three things happen when they are in the lab… you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.’ He also continued on to remark that he was in favour of single-sex labs. He has since resigned from his post at University College London (UCL).

Such comments may amount to discrimination against a fellow female employee who was present at the event when they were made.

Although it is not clear in what capacity Sir Hunt attended the conference, this case serves as a reminder of (1) an employer’s liability for discrimination in the workplace and (2) the importance of clear equal opportunities and disciplinary policies.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer may be liable for any discrimination caused by an employee whilst acting in the course of their employment (which could include speaking at conferences or other events where the employee is representing the employer). A defence is available if the employer can show that they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the discrimination from occurring. Reasonable steps may include:
• having and implementing equal opportunities / anti-discrimination policies;
• making employees aware of these policies and what implications they will have; and
• providing training on discrimination issues.

If it is found that an employer did take all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination the claim against the employer will fail (however a finding of discrimination could still be made against the individual employee).

Another important issue is highlighted by this case. As he was employed by UCL at the time the sexist comments were made, Sir Tim Hunt’s actions as a representative of UCL may reflect directly on them as his employer. This can be extremely detrimental to an employer’s reputation, particularly in cases of discrimination.

It is worth checking your disciplinary policy to ensure that it prevents employees from acting in any way which has the potential to cause reputational damage. Specific wording to cover this is helpful in establishing a fair dismissal.

Please get in touch if you would like any help with drafting / reviewing your policies.

Alison Locke and Sophie Gallacher

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