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Sex discrimination

Men and women should be treated fairly and given equal opportunities. It is against the law to treat you unfairly or bully you because of your sex. Outdated gender stereotypes can lead to sexist attitudes and discriminatory behaviour. Women are more likely to experience sex discrimination, particularly in the workplace.

What is sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination is when someone treats you unfairly or bullies you because of your sex.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, sex is taken to mean whether you are male or female. However, Australian courts recognise that, in some instances, a person’s sex characteristics may not be clearly female or male.

You may choose to identify as a member of the opposite sex. Your right to do so is protected under the Act as gender identity. Gender identity also protects the right of intersex people to choose the sex they identify as.

There are some characteristics that can be related to your sex but have separate protection under the law. These are:

Examples of sex discrimination

  • A golf club limiting the number of Saturday tee-off times for women but not men.
  • A school only providing equipment for the boys’ football team and not the girls’.
  • A man being asked to leave a shop for browsing in the women’s clothing section.
  • A father not being offered a place in the local mothers’ group even though he is the primary carer for his baby.

How does the law protect me?

Discrimination is against the law if it happens in an area of public life such as:

People who work in these areas have a positive duty to make sure you don’t face discrimination.

It is also against the law to victimise a person, which means treat them badly, because they have made complaint about discrimination or helped someone else make a complaint.

You can make a complaint

Get help from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

You can make a complaint to us if you think you have experienced:

If you wish, someone else can make a complaint for you.

Find out how the Commission helps people resolve complaints.

We can also give you information about your rights.

Sex discrimination at work

The majority of sex discrimination complaints that come to us are work related (76.9 per cent in 2018-19).

While a person is responsible for their own unlawful behaviour, employers can also be held responsible.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, employers have a positive duty to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as far as possible.

Victoria is unique in having a positive duty, which creates an opportunity to prevent unlawful behaviour. It helps organisations put a healthy workplace culture in place, just as occupational health and safety laws require employers to take appropriate steps to ensure injuries don’t occur.

Organisations must also put measures in place to ensure that complaints are responded to swiftly and appropriately when they do arise.

The positive duty applies to employers of all sizes, regardless of whether they are a major company or a small cafe, and covers all types of workers:

  • full-time, part-time and casual employees
  • agents and contract workers
  • trainees and apprentices.

It applies to all stages of employment, including:

Examples of sex discrimination in the workplace

  • Not hiring a woman because the boss thinks she won’t fit into a traditionally male workplace.
  • Offering women and men different rates of pay or benefits for the same job.
  • Not promoting a woman to a more senior position because it’s assumed the other staff won’t respect her authority.
  • Dividing up work tasks based on whether staff are male or female.
  • Insisting women wear different clothing at work to men, for example, short skirts.
  • Not considering women for a senior role.

Are there any exceptions to the law?

There are some exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act that mean it’s not against the law to discriminate in particular circumstances. For example, discrimination is not against the law if there is a real risk to someone’s health, safety or property.

Find out more about exceptions.

My human rights under the Charter

Every Victorian has the right to equal and effective protection against discrimination, and to enjoy their human rights without discrimination.

Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities contains 20 basic rights that promote and protect the values of freedom, respect, equality, and dignity.

The Victorian Government, local councils and other public authorities must always consider these rights when they create laws, develop policies and deliver their services.

Find out more about your human rights under the Charter and what to do if you think they have been breached.

Related resources

Equitable Briefing Initiative: Aggregate data report – Jul 2017