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equality act

Are clubs discriminating against women by hosting men-only competitions?

Is it fair that access to tee times can be restricted on gender grounds? Steve Carroll looks at what the Equality Act says and the guidance that has been given to clubs
 

It was no surprise, when I recently wrote about how men and women must be offered equal access to the golf course, that I’d receive stories from people who had experienced the exact opposite.

But while it remains remarkable for some that your gender can dictate when and how you may be permitted to play golf by your club, is it actually legal?

The Equality Act was introduced in 2010 to prevent unlawful discrimination on the basis of what are called “protected characteristics”. Sex is an obvious one, but the act also covers age, disability, gender reassignment, race, and religion – among other aspects.

So, can a club regularly close the course for men’s competitions even though that means women members can’t access it?

This question was covered in a 2018 guidance document looking at how the Equality Act relates to golf, which was produced by solicitors Mills & Reeve in conjunction with England Golf, contained the opinions and advice of the governing body, and was not designed to replace legal advice tailored to specific circumstances.

It’s contained in a section called indirect discrimination, which is where a club does something which, it says, “has a worse impact on people who share a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not share that characteristic”.

There can be objective justification for such an act, which would mean it would “not be indirect discrimination if a club can show that its actions were a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

What does that mean? A legitimate aim must “simply relate to a real need of the club” and could be “anything that relates to the club’s needs as a business and as a service provider”.

The guidance gives a number of possible examples, which include raising a club’s membership or its profile in the local community, or increasing the club’s revenue or decreasing its costs.

Proportionate means are said to be far more difficult to show, with a trio of examples expressing that “the method used was reasonably necessary to achieve this legitimate aim, the club’s need to achieve the aim outweighs the discriminatory effect, and the club could not have used less discriminatory means to achieve the same objective”.

How does it relate to this topic? The guidance gives a specific example that might be familiar – at least in some way – to some clubs and members.

It outlines: “Club rules state that all members, regardless of sex, are permitted to play at all times, but the course is closed 40 Saturday mornings of the year for men’s competitions.

“These competitions are very popular and well attended, however as a result, female members are disadvantaged as they cannot access the course.”

The guidance reveals the club “may well be able to establish a legitimate aim in holding men’s tournaments 40 Saturdays a year, such as ‘raising revenue in ticket and entry sales’, or ‘promoting the club in the local community’.”

When it comes to proportionate means, the guidance says the club “would have to show that blocking the Saturday mornings for men’s competitions was (i) reasonably necessary for raising revenue and promoting the club, (ii) that the club’s need to achieve the revenue and promotion outweighs the unequal treatment of female members and (iii) that revenue and promotion could not be achieved in a less discriminatory way.

“Whether or not the club will be able to do this will come down to the facts, if it cannot then it will be liable for indirect discrimination.

“It is suggested that tee times for women cut into the competition might be a solution to the issue.”

Has your club broken down the barriers when it comes to gender equality in golf? What do you make of this Equality Act guidance? Tweet me and let me know.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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