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Professor with gender critical views wins unfair dismissal claim

Undated handout photo of Professor Jo Phoenix who has won her gender critical discrimination case against the Open University. Issue date: Tuesday January 23, 2024.
Undated handout photo of Professor Jo Phoenix who has won her gender critical discrimination case against the Open University. Issue date: Tuesday January 23, 2024.

A criminology professor has won an unfair dismissal claim against the Open University after she was discriminated against and harassed because of her gender critical beliefs.

An employment tribunal found that Professor Jo Phoenix was forced to quit her job because of a “hostile environment” created by colleagues and “insufficient protection” from the university.

A ruling found that the Open University (OU) “failed to protect” Prof Phoenix because it did not want to be seen to be expressing any support for academics with gender critical beliefs.

Prof Phoenix – who was compared with “a racist uncle at the Christmas table” because of her gender critical views – said the failure of the OU to support and protect her from harassment on the grounds of her views was the reason why she resigned from the job.

The academic, who was employed as a professor by the OU in August 2016, resigned from the university in December 2021.

The tribunal found that she was constructively unfairly dismissed because of breaches of the “implied terms of trust and confidence and the duty to provide a suitable working environment”.

The ruling, which was published on Monday, also concluded that Prof Phoenix was a victim of discrimination, harassment and wrongful dismissal.

“The respondent failed to protect the claimant because they did not want to be seen to give any kind of support to academics with gender critical beliefs, including the claimant,” the judgment said.

It added: “The claimant believes in the immutability and importance of biological sex which comes from the fact that being female is something the claimant has always believed and is core to who she is.

“The claimant believes that biological sex is real, that it is important, that a person cannot change their biological sex, and that sex is not to be conflated with gender identity.”

In October 2018, Prof Phoenix signed a letter to The Guardian alongside other academics which raised concerns about the introduction of self-identification for gender reassignment.

In June 2019, the academic signed another letter to The Sunday Times which expressed disquiet about the relationship between LGBT+ charity Stonewall and UK universities.

Following the Sunday Times letter, Prof Phoenix was told by Louise Westmarland, then deputy head of the department of social policy and criminology at the OU, in October 2019 that having her in the department was “like having a racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table”, the ruling found.

The tribunal concluded that Prof Phoenix had been working in a “hostile environment” since summer 2019 which “intensified” by June 2021 – which was when Prof Phoenix launched the Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN) at the OU with two colleagues with similar views.

An open letter – signed by 368 OU staff members and postgraduate researchers – was published which called on the university to withdraw any affiliation with the network and to take action to support trans students and staff in the “trans-hostile” environment.

The tribunal found there was a “targeted campaign” against Prof Phoenix by colleagues and the publication of the letter online contributed to the “pile on”.

Prof Phoenix said she had received death threats following the open letter and she asked the OU to take action to support her, but the ruling found she was provided with “insufficient protection” from harassment.

It concluded: “We find that the respondent did not provide the claimant protection particularly in the form of asking staff and students not to launch campaigns to de-platform the GCRN, or make calls to remove support for the claimant’s gender critical research, or use social media to label the claimant transphobic or TERF.”

Prof Phoenix said: “I am delighted that the tribunal found in my favour. It was an exceptionally painful part of my career but I am glad for the win.

“Universities must act to protect their gender critical staff. As the tribunal agreed, accusations of transphobia, just because someone holds gender critical views, organising and publishing open letters with the intent of creating a hostile environment, are unlawful forms of harassment.

“Academics and universities must now, surely, recognise their responsibilities towards promoting diversity of viewpoints and tolerance of alternative views.”

Professor Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of the OU, said: “We acknowledge that we can learn from this judgment and are considering the findings very carefully.

“We are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of everyone involved in the case and acknowledge the significant impact it has had on Professor Phoenix, the witnesses and many other colleagues.

“Our priority has been to protect freedom of speech while respecting legal rights and protections. We are disappointed by the judgment and will need time to consider it in detail, including our right to appeal.”