The Case for Single Sex Exemptions

Kiri Tunks is a teacher and an active teacher trade unionist and feminist.

The Gender Recognition Act GRA was passed in 2004 and, for the first time, allowed people who were uncomfortable with their sex to legally change their gender.

When the GRA was passed in 2004, women’s sector services lobbied for, and won, legal exemptions to enable them to provide single sex services on a case-by-case basis where there was a “proportionate response to a legitimate aim”. One example given in the EHRC guidance relating to the law was that of group counselling sessions for rape survivors because it was recognised that some female survivors would not attend such sessions if someone was present that they experienced as male. There are other scenarios like women’s refuges, women-only swimming sessions etc.

There is also an exemption for Genuine Occupational Requirements where a case can be made to employ someone according to their sex if the job requires it. An example of this is mammography where statistics show that a significant percentage of women would not attend this voluntary screening service if the mammographer was male — higher numbers might attend but will be uncomfortable with it and may not return. Other examples are jobs like bra fitting or running a women’s refuge. A specific case has to be made for these exemptions.

The Women’s & Equality Select Inquiry (WESC) proposals want to move to a process of gender self-identification and to remove these exemptions.

I agree there are problems with the GRA process (not least the requirement to prove you live like a man or a woman because that seems to play into stereotypes of gender that many of us are fighting against) but it is unclear what the impact of a change to self-identity will be and whether the numbers will increase.

However, it seems perfectly reasonable for women to want to retain the rights to legal exemption where necessary and proportionate. This is what women’s organisations like A Woman’s Place UK are demanding.

Seeking to maintain these quite limited exemptions is presented as women attacking Trans rights when it is about women preserving rights they have won to ameliorate the oppression they face in society.

Society doesn’t seem to be doing much to make things better — endemic levels of sexual harassment and violence, nearly 3 women a week killed by intimate partners, workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap, pregnancy discrimination, the impact of austerity of public services which women rely on heavily etc, etc.

To add insult to injury, these concerns were not properly considered by the Women & Equalities Select Committee — women’s groups who made submissions to the Inquiry were not called to give evidence in person and their concerns were not addressed by the findings of the Inquiry. Perhaps if they had been we would be in a better place now.

I cannot think of another oppressed group with protected characteristics under the law who would be expected to give up rights they have won without consultation or consideration. Yet, when women insist their concerns will be heard they are denounced and abused. None of this reassures us that society cares about women’s needs. As usual, we are expected to accommodate and make the best of things.

I realise there are women who say they don’t need these exemptions but that has always been the case. Maybe they don’t; maybe they haven’t needed to yet. That’s fine, they don’t need to make use of them. But there are many, many women who do. At the moment, they have that right under the law. They want to retain that right. It’s as simple as that.

Kiri Tunks