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Professor wins unfair dismissal claim over gender views

24 January 2024
University campus

Jo Phoenix, a criminology professor formerly at the Open University (OU), won her case for unfair dismissal, victimisation, and harassment.

Phoenix had established the Gender Critical Research Network at OU, advocating the priority of biological sex over gender identity. This stance led to accusations of transphobia and likening her to "a racist uncle at the Christmas table".

After more than five years, Phoenix expressed relief and vindication following the employment tribunal's 156-page judgment, which recognised the insult of being branded transphobic for holding gender-critical views.

She said, "The last few years have been well and truly punishing. The tribunal was bruising and hard, and it took me to very dark places, but we are winning. I really hope that one of the outcomes of all of this is that any academic or student out there who is afraid to speak will feel a little bit braver today because we’ve got the law on our side.”

Judge Jennifer Young concluded that the abuse Phoenix faced constituted harassment and that OU was complicit by failing to protect her.

This case marks the first instance of a university being found guilty of harassment for not shielding a member from ill-treatment due to gender-critical beliefs. Phoenix hopes this victory encourages others in academia to speak up.

She believes the tide is turning and the "era of no debate is well and truly over".

Phoenix's troubles at OU began when she expressed views on the silencing of debate on trans issues, and of the management of male-bodied prisoners in female prisons. Her establishment of the gender-critical network further intensified opposition, with 368 colleagues demanding OU disassociate from the group.

The tribunal highlighted direct discrimination instances, including Phoenix being barred from speaking at departmental meetings and discussing her research. It also found a comment by Professor Louise Westmarland, equating Phoenix to a racist, as harassment.

Phoenix, who resigned from OU in December 2021, is now deputy head of the school of law at the University of Reading. She views this new role as a safe haven. Her compensation is yet to be determined.

OU, represented by Vice-Chancellor Professor Tim Blackman, expressed disappointment in the judgment and is considering an appeal.

Blackman acknowledged the need to learn from this case, emphasising the impact on all parties involved and the commitment to protecting freedom of speech while respecting legal rights.

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