Prospect wins sex discrimination case against ONS

Prospect wins sex discrimination case against ONS

Prospect member Olwen Renowden has won a sex discrimination case against ONS after the union brought the case to tribunal.

Judge's gavel

After her appointment in 2016 Olwen noted quite early on that there were no female economists at Grade 6, despite a headcount of over 114 economists.

In February 2017 two Grade 6 posts were advertised. Olwen was the only candidate who had been previously employed at this grade and who had strong academic and professional credentials from some of the world’s most prestigious macro-economics employers, such as the Bank of England, and the IMF, in addition to holding various senior Whitehall posts. One other female employee applied for the roles, who had an equally impressive CV and managerial experience.

Olwen was rejected for both posts in April 2017 and was told that she had failed to get an interview for either role. She contacted management to request an explanation but none was forthcoming, other than in the form of a suggestion that she contact HR.

In June 2017 it was announced that the successful candidates were both male – young, inexperienced, neither had been employed at G6 level previously, neither had a specialisation in macro-economics. These candidates had less than six years’ professional experience in economics each, versus the 20+ years’ of the female candidates.

Further to these appointments came the announcement that a third post had been created – again with no advertisement. The ONS claimed that the third post had been created to create opportunity for male candidates who had passed the Grade 6 promotion board, and yet no such corresponding opportunity was made available for any female candidates who had also passed the Grade 6 promotion board.

Olwen raised a grievance at which she was represented by Prospect National Secretary, Ben Middleton. Her grievance and subsequent appeal were not upheld and she resigned from the ONS in August 2018. Olwen applied to the Employment Tribunal and her case was heard at the Cardiff tribunal between 7th and 10th January 2019. Olwen was represented by David Renton of Garden Court Chambers.

The tribunal agreed that “favouritism” existed towards male staff and that those who should have addressed it, failed to do so, concluding that “the approach to gender balance…pointed towards a culture where discrimination and, in particular, sex discrimination, is not properly understood by those who are required to ensure its elimination”.

It went on to add that it was “reasonable to infer that the culture of the respondent is one where advantage and favouritism to males is not recognised as potentially discriminatory”, which significantly highlights the serious cultural problems and issues that Olwen had been trying to raise throughout her employment at the ONS.

The tribunal found that Olwen’s claims of direct sex discrimination succeeded and the ONS was ordered to pay compensation and interest.

Olwen Renowden said:

"I believe this case illustrates an important reason why progress on diversity is so slow. There could have been five women (or more) on this claim, but only I was a member of a trade union, and had the support to make it possible. I thank my brave colleagues for the courage it took to speak up during the investigation, and wish to acknowledge all of them, and especially Prospect, for making this possible. I hope we can use this result to make a real difference given there are over 1400 economists in government, and our profession is too influential to only represent the few."

Jane Copley, Legal Officer, said:

“We are pleased with this result, not least because this has a much wider impact than just on the individual and we hope this sends a strong message to employers that lip-service in respect of gender balance will not be tolerated and they can expect to be challenged on it”.

Sue Ferns, Prospect’s senior deputy general secretary said:

“This case reveals a shocking lack of diversity among economists at ONS and what seems like the deliberate overlooking of female candidates in favour of men.

“It’s 2019 but it seems we still have a long way to go to overcome stereotypes in the workplace. Prospect has been campaigning hard to overcome gender bias, especially in areas like science, engineering and economics, and will continue to do so until neither unfair discrimination nor unconscious bias adversely impact women’s careers. We will not allow these disciplines to continue to be a hold-out of sexist work cultures.

“The finding of the tribunal puts employers on notice that unequal employment practices will not be tolerated. It also sends a message to anyone who has suffered at the hands of their employer that they can expect redress, and that unions are standing by to help their members achieve justice.“


Note to editors

Grade 6 is the most senior grade below the Senior Civil Service, typically entailing a very high level of specialist experience and expertise and/or the management of multiple teams and work streams. Grade 6 civil servants typically earn £10,000 to £15,000 more than those employed at Grade 7.