Professor Jo Phoenix has won her employment tribunal against the Open University. It has been found that that the Open University failed to protect her from abuse because of her gender critical beliefs, and is liable for direct discrimination, harassment, constructive dismissal, and post-employment victimisation.
Professor Phoenix is a criminologist, former Dean at Durham University, and former chair of criminology at the Open University. Phoenix is gender critical: she believes that sex is biological and cannot be changed. She has also published research arguing that transwomen should not be admitted into some women-only spaces in prisons.
During her time as professor at the Open University, Phoenix was subject to a two-year campaign of organised abuse from colleagues because of her gender critical views. She was instructed not to speak about her research at departmental meetings, compared to a racist by her manager, received anonymous emails stating that the senders were “out to get her”, and was viciously abused online.
Phoenix founded the Gender Critical Research Network, a research group which aims to ensure “that a space within academia is kept open for rigorous exploration of issues of sex and gender”. In response, 368 of her colleagues signed an open letter which accused the network, and by extension its members, of being transphobic, and demanded that Open University remove support for the project. This letter was emailed to all Open University union members by the local branch of the University and College Union. The London School of Economics published a statement on its website claiming that Phoenix routinely made “transphobic, discriminatory, inaccurate, and harmful claims”. A further letter was published by the Open University Reproduction Sexualities and Sexual Health Research Group, also demanding that the university remove support for the project.
Throughout the two-year period, the Open University did little or nothing to protect Phoenix from abuse. It did not, for instance, take action to ensure Phoenix was able to discuss her work at departmental meetings, or instruct staff who had published defamatory claims about Phoenix to remove them. Instead, when Phoenix complained to the university, she was referred to counselling. Phoenix was diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder and eventually left the Open University. She later launched an employment tribunal against it for its failure to protect her from abuse.
On January 22nd the employment tribunal published its judgement, which found that the Open University’s failure to protect Phoenix made it liable for direct discrimination, harassment, constructive dismissal, and post-employment victimisation. Notable conclusions of the judgement include:
- The Open University’s failure to protect Phoenix was due to “fear of the pro-gender identity section of the Open University”. Furthermore, there was a “gender identity culture where academics in the Claimant’s [Phoenix’s] faculty felt obliged to support the gender identity position”. This culture of fear ensured that the Open University “did not want to be seen to give any kind of support to academics with gender critical beliefs”.
- The publishing and signing of the open letter by 368 of Phoenix’s colleagues was found to constitute harassment.
- Multiple claims in the open letter, the LSE statement, and the letter published by the Reproduction Sexualities and Sexual Health Research Group were found to be false, or to have “no basis”. These included the claims, for instance, that Phoenix had made “prejudiced statements” against trans people, or that she was “adamantly and openly opposed to recognising trans people’s rightful and valid claims to their gender and their rights”.
- Multiple academic witnesses called by the Open University, who collaborated to create the open letter which denounced the Gender Critical Research Network, were found to be “evasive and resistant to providing the truth to the Tribunal”.
The judgement is a damning indictment of a culture of fear at the Open University, which enabled the continued persecution of Professor Phoenix. The inaction of the Open University is an appalling failure to protect academic freedom.