Civil servant wins sex discrimination case against ONS

Written by Richard Johnstone on 26 February 2019 in News

Tribunal finds that “favouritism to males is not recognised as potentially discriminatory” in ONS

A civil servant has won a sex discrimination case against the Office for National Statistics after a tribunal found “favouritism” existed towards male staff at the government body

Olwen Renowden, an economist and member of the Prospect trade union, brought her case after three less experienced male employees were promoted ahead of her.

A tribunal upheld Renowden’s claim of direct sex discrimination and the ONS was ordered to pay £19,000 compensation. The judgment found 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”.


Renowden joined ONS in 2016 as a grade 7 economist then applied for a grade 6 post. Although Renowden was the only candidate who had been previously employed at this level, and had worked for organisations such as the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund as well as elsewhere in government, she did not get an interview, according to Prospect, who advised her in her case.  

She contacted management to request an explanation but none was forthcoming, other than in the form of a suggestion that she contact HR, and in June 2017 it was announced that the successful candidates were both male, neither of whom had been employed at Grade 6 previously and who had less than six years’ professional experience in economics respectively, versus the over 20 years’ experience of Renowden and another female employee who applied for the roles.

Renowden raised a grievance at which she was represented by Prospect, but this was not upheld and she resigned from the ONS in August last year. She then applied to the employment tribunal and her case was heard at the Cardiff tribunal in January.

The tribunal decision, published on Friday, agreed that “favouritism” existed towards male staff and that those who should have addressed it failed to do so. Upholding two counts sex discrimination, the tribunal concluded there was evidence that “pointed towards a culture where discrimination and, in particular, sex discrimination, is not properly understood by those who are required to ensure its elimination”.

In particular, the ruling highlighted that there was an “an informal process that led to temporary promotions for males in substantially greater numbers than females”, and that this would lead to an advantage in permanent promotion appointments.

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 Prospect said significantly highlighted the serious cultural problems Renowden had been trying to raise throughout her employment at the ONS.

The tribunal also noted that the ONS had disregarded its policy for sift panels for jobs to be gender balanced. Instead, the sift was undertaken by two males because, the ONS said, there “was no availability of a female to make up the panel”. However, the tribunal said it did not accept that explanation. “We consider that there was at least one senior female who might have been included on the panel.”

According to the judgment, there are 125 economist posts in the ONS, where the balance is 33.6% female to 66.4% male. At grade 7 there were approximately 37% women, based on relatively small numbers of 27 grade 7 employees in total, and a balance at grade 6 level of 20% female to 80% male, although only based on 10 posts. However, in the ONS's wider analysis function – which also has roles open to economists – the split is more even.

“It is accepted by the respondent that the gender balance in the office of National statistics, insofar as it relates to economists, is out of kilter,” the judgement said.

Responding to the judgment, 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 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."

Sue Ferns, Prospect’s senior deputy general secretary said the case revealed a lack of diversity among economists at ONS “and what seems like the deliberate overlooking of female candidates in favour of men”.

“The finding of the tribunal puts employers on notice that unequal employment practices will not be tolerated.“
A spokesperson for the Office for National Statistics said: “The ONS values the contributions of all its people and is continually working to support everyone in progressing their careers. We are considering the ruling in this case very carefully”


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