MAN UP!! – an act of sex discrimination?

30th March 2023


It is a common phrase we hear all the time and, by and large, it simply means to put up with a tough situation (whatever your sex) but in this day and age, is telling someone to “man up” actually harmful or, at worst, unlawful?

Postmodernist schools of thought have challenged society to reevaluate the meaning of language and, in some cases, language has been ‘re-contextualised’ altogether so it can better suit the modern world. Needless to say, this has led to a slew of freedom of speech issues.

If the modern thinking is such that the term “man up” no longer exemplifies the values of stoicism, but instead reinforces archaic ideals of masculinity, then, would it be regarded as an act of sex discrimination to tell a work colleague to ‘man up’?

Woods v NHS Property Services Limited, explores this issue. It should be noted that the Claimant lost his claim for sex discrimination but this was due to a procedural failing rather than being beaten on a point of fact or law.

Mr Woods raised a grievance about a female colleague who punched him three times. However, the investigation concluded that the female colleague did not punch Woods with any malicious intent nor was there evidence to establish that the punches were thrown with any strong force.

As a result of the grievance outcome, Woods went on long-term sickness absence for three months. He later returned but made a request to HR to be redeployed as he did not feel safe working with the female colleague who punched him. In response, the HR business partner told Woods to ‘man up’ and return to his job. Consider whether if this would’ve happened the other way around, if a woman had been in the same position?

Woods issued a second grievance but it was rejected. Woods was then dismissed. He brought claims against the NHS including sex discrimination. Now, while Woods lost his case for the reasons mentioned above, the Employment Tribunal nevertheless opined that, telling a male colleague to ‘man up’ was not acceptable, and this phrase should not be used in the workplace.

The takeaway point from all this is that language does change depending on the current thinking and values of society. It is, therefore, something that employers and HR teams must be acutely aware of and up-to-date on.

Carrying out a regular review of a company’s equality, diversity and inclusion policy is useful but frequent training is what will really help educate employees to understand the ever changing landscape of modern society and may help prevent discrimination in the workplace therefore limiting the exposure to such claims.

Please do get in touch if you need assistance in reviewing or drafting anti-discrimination policies, have had a grievance raised or indeed you yourself have suffered an act of discrimination at work and need legal advice feel free to get in touch at