If you have any doubts that attitudes towards sex equality have changed over the years, it is worth reading one of the early sex discrimination judgments, Peake v Automotive Products. 

The allegation in this claim from 1977, as put in Mr Peake’s own words was:

“I am discriminated against at 4.25pm on each week day I work.  The female sex are allowed to go out of the gates at 4.25pm each day and the male sex are made to wait until 4.30pm.” 

This was true.  Automotive Products made no secret of letting the women leave shifts a little early so that they might avoid the rush at 4.30.  The practice was at least 30 years old and had been agreed with the union.  It was, the company said, “to make appropriate provision for the special needs of women”, meaning avoiding their being “jostled and crushed” as 4,000 male employees left bang on 4.30pm.

Aside from the rather antiquated references to “the female sex” and “the male sex”, what makes this case remarkable from today’s perspective is that the claim was originally dismissed by the then Industrial Tribunal.

Although today a policy of allowing women to leave work earlier than men would be instantly denounced as obviously discriminatory on grounds of sex, at the time even the Employment Appeal Tribunal struggled to recognise it as such.  The EAT admitted that it  was only after a thorough review of the recently passed Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (and what appears to have been a good deal of soul-searching) that it was able to put aside its initial view that it was “absurd to say that it was sex discrimination to make a sensible arrangement which enabled the women to leave the factory in comfort and convenience before the men”.  The EAT even went so far as to admit that it had initially considered the application to be “a tease or an attempt to guy [ridicule] the Sex Discrimination Act”.  Even in concluding ultimately that the practice was discriminatory against men, the EAT’s disappointment that the law should have forced it to that point was palpable – it gave Automotive Products a full 12 months in which to discontinue it.

So “chivalry” having died at that moment, judicially speaking, can we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, and the leaps taken since then towards complete equality between the sexes in the workplace?

Anyone who thinks that we can, should perhaps spend some time with Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, a man whose previous insights into sex equality include proposing that female footballers wear “tighter shorts” to help create “a more female aesthetic” and so boost the game’s popularity.  He is now in the news for describing one of four female candidates for a position on the Asian Football Confederation Executive Committee as, wait for it, “good and good looking”.

Mr Blatter is far from being the only person to make such remarks.  Not so long ago, Barack Obama, who most would agree has generally greater insight into equal rights issues than Mr B, got into trouble after describing a new female appointment as the “best looking attorney-general in the country”.

Now, some will respond to the notion that these comments are intrinsically sexist by exclaiming “What? Can’t a man compliment a women any more?” or “But this means the end of chivalry…”, no doubt shortly followed by the words “political”, “correctness” and “mad” in an order of your choice.

For those with such doubts about the inappropriateness of Blatter’s comments, it is therefore worth doing what the EAT did in Peake in order to understand the issue, and turn the scenario on its head.

The EAT asked what the reaction would be if, instead of leaving 5 minutes earlier than men, women were required to leave work 5 minutes later.  They were in no doubt that anyone would conclude that this would be “blatant sex discrimination”.  By reason, the reverse scenario where men leave later must therefore also be. The same exercise also exposes Blatter’s comments for their sexist nature.  Not because if he had introduced a male candidate as good looking we would scream “sex discrimination”.  But because our reaction would be “How weird, what an odd thing to say”.  It just would not happen.

By introducing a female candidate for a senior AFC role as “good looking”, the subtext, whether intended or not, can only have been “Well done for being good at what you do, despite being a woman”.  The subsidiary question then is does this mean a man can no longer compliment a woman (or vice versa) in the office without fear of perceived condescension, lechery or just plain creepiness?  The answer, as always, is that it depends on the context.  Making some “pleasant” remark to a colleague in many cases will be interpreted as just that.  The same remark in another context may seem less pleasant.  A “compliment” made, for example, by a male interviewer about a female candidate’s appearance during a job interview could be just the evidence required to establish sex discrimination, particularly if the job was then offered to a man.