Open University Professor Says Sex is Immutable; Wins Case on Gender-Critical Beliefs

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A professor at the Open University who believes that sex is immutable has won a case centred on her gender-critical beliefs. 

The case provides insight into the clash between gender identity and gender-critical perspectives. Further, it also shows the robust protections afforded to individuals holding gender-critical beliefs under the Equality Act 2010.

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Case Summary

To begin with, Professor Jo Phoenix, a criminology professor at The Open University, contended that the institution had discriminated against her due to her gender-critical beliefs. 

Rooted in the belief that biological sex is unalterable and distinct from gender identity, Phoenix’s beliefs became a point of contention within the academic community.

The essence of the case revolved around Phoenix’s assertion that the university failed to shield her from discrimination and harassment based on her gender-critical beliefs. Instances such as the cancellation of a conference and an open letter signed by numerous colleagues. The open letter in question condemned the launch of the Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN).

The tribunal ruled in Phoenix’s favour, stating that the university failed to address harassment adequately. Following that, the judgment then deemed Phoenix’s resignation as constructive dismissal.

Gender Identity vs Gender-Critical Beliefs

The heart of the matter lies in the dichotomy between gender identity and gender-critical beliefs. 

‘Gender identity’ is a term used to describe one’s gender which could be different from their birth sex. On the other hand, gender-critical beliefs affirm the existence of only two sexes—male and female—tied to reproductive biology, dismissing the notion that one can alter one sex.

What Protection Do People with Gender-Critical Beliefs Have?

The Equality Act 2010 is pivotal in safeguarding individuals with gender-critical beliefs against discrimination. This legislation outlines four forms of belief discrimination—direct, indirect, harassment, and victimisation. 

Furthermore, the protective umbrella extends equally to those holding gender identity and gender-critical beliefs, fostering an environment of inclusivity. 

Individuals can identify with a gender different from their assigned sex and legally change their sex by obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). 

But, regardless of one’s beliefs, if they are recognised as philosophical beliefs under the Equality Act 2010, individuals are entitled to protection against any discrimination stemming from them.

Ensuring the validity of beliefs under the Equality Act involves adherence to the Grainger principles. These principles outline that for a belief to warrant protection, it must be:

  • Genuinely held
  • Extend beyond mere opinion
  • Concern a substantial aspect of human life
  • Exhibit cogency and seriousness
  • Compatible with human dignity and fundamental rights.

READ: Verbal Resignations – Are they Valid in the UK?

Clash of Differing Beliefs

The case that happened at the Open University showed the clash that can happen between differing beliefs. On one hand, it is unlawful to discriminate against individuals against their gender identity – which has been established through the Equality Act 2010. 

However, based on this case, it has also been determined that it is unlawful to discriminate and harass an individual based on their philosophical beliefs. 

Going forward, employers should view this as an opportunity to safeguard employees against harmful and unlawful discrimination. Employers should understand the importance of maintaining a balanced and respectful environment for individuals to thrive in their workplace. 

If you require advice or guidance on employment law matters including harassment or discrimination, head to the Redmans website. And, to get in touch with our team of expert employment lawyers, click here.


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