An Open University professor forced to quit her job over a gender identity row has won an unfair dismissal claim against the institution.
Criminology Professor Jo Phoenix had been likened to a “racist uncle” with “problematic and scary” views after the publishing of multiple open letters to newspapers.
However, a ruling found the Open University’s failure to protect her from harassment from colleagues and trans activists was motivated by a “fear of the pro-gender identity section” of the university and a “fear of being seen to support gender-critical beliefs”.
One letter, sent to the Guardian in 2018, saw Phoenix (and 53 other academics) expressing apprehension about self-identification for trans people.
The letter voiced concerns about “the suppression of proper academic analysis and discussion of the social phenomenon of transgenderism”.
The Open University did not adequately protect Phoenix, the tribunal heard
Twitter/Jo Phoenix/Jaggery via Geograph
It also critiqued trans advocacy groups’ influence on university policies and their “dangerous” misuse of the word “transphobic”.
Then, in June 2019, the Sunday Times published another letter “registering disquiet over a perceived inappropriately close relationship between the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and UK universities”, an employment tribunal heard.
In October of that year, Professor Louise Westmarland reportedly reduced Phoenix to tears after describing her gender-critical stance as “like having a racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table”.
Phoenix’s ‘cancellation’ and last-minute ‘no-platforming’ from delivering a lecture at the University of Essex on ‘hate speech’ grounds was at the centre of a campaign by Free Speech Union founder Toby Young, which resulted in an official apology from the school
Phoenix was ‘deplatformed’ and stopped from speaking at the University of Essex
Terry Joyce via Geograph
Phoenix and two others founded the Open University Gender Critical Research Network in 2021 to “create and protect a space” where researchers could “challenge the perspective… that sex is a social construct”, which received significant backlash.
Colleagues wrote to the university calling for the ‘deplatforming’ of the group, saying they did not believe that “freedom of speech or academic freedom should come at the expense of marginalised groups”.
Phoenix was targeted on social media by colleagues, who labelled her transphobic, and told the tribunal that by June 2021 she was working in a “hostile environment”.
She said she asked bosses for help against bullying and harassment but received insufficient support.
Phoenix resigned in December 2021, and the tribunal has been ongoing since October 2023
That December, Phoenix resigned – and took the Open University to the tribunal.
The tribunal, chaired by employment judge Jennifer Young, found that the university breached the implied terms of trust and confidence in her contract, and failed to provide a suitable working environment for Phoenix.
The Open University did not adequately protect Phoenix, and did not take action to dampen social media campaigns against her said Young.
The judgment said the university failed to protect her “because they did not want to be seen to give any kind of support to academics with gender critical beliefs”.
Open University vice-chancellor Tim Blackman said the university was disappointed but acknowledged that it “could learn” from it.
Blackman said: “We are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of everyone involved in the case and acknowledge the significant impact it has had on Prof Phoenix, the witnesses and many other colleagues.
“Our priority has been to protect freedom of speech while respecting legal rights and protections.”
Phoenix, posting on social media, said: “Thank you to everyone who supported me, put some pennies into my crowdjustice (a crowdfunding platform for legal action), bought me drink[s], sent me a message of support.
“This is all our win. We did this… For now I’m off to open a bottle of fizz.”
Annie Powell, partner at Leigh Day solicitors who represented Phoenix at the tribunal, said: “We hope we see no further cases of academics being treated so badly because of their protected beliefs.”
Phoenix, praising Powell, said: “This is the AMAZING woman I had fighting my corner with me. We laughed. We cried. We worked bloody hard. AND WE WON.”
Phoenix’s compensation will be decided at a later date.