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No Girls Allowed

No Girls Allowed

Members of Muirfield Golf Club have voted to decide whether female members should now be accepted. The results are in: women are out. 

Although 65% of the Club’s members voted to permit female members, a two-third majority was required if women were to make the cut. So, Muirfield Golf Club remains ‘male-only’, for the most part. 

The obvious question is: how can this be lawful?

Generally speaking, the Equality Act 2010 acts to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. However, under Schedule 16 of the Act, “single characteristic associations” are expressly permitted to restrict membership to those who share a protected characteristic.

Schedule 16 is, on the face of it, an odd exception. Where an association or private club is, by its nature, intrinsically linked to one particular protected characteristic, the requirement for the exception might seem clearer. It makes sense, perhaps, that a private club for deaf individuals may wish to limit its membership to those who are deaf. Where the association is a private golf club, however, the requirement that all members be male seems far less clear. Nevertheless, the Equality Act permits this particular form of discrimination.

Very recently, we have seen the introduction of shared parental leave and employers are getting teed up to comply with gender pay gap reporting obligations. It seems strange that, against a backdrop of increasingly ‘equality-friendly’ legislation, a decision to exclude women from a private golf club should be protected by the Equality Act.

Some argue that there is a place for single-sex establishments in a diverse society, and the Equality Act recognises this. However, Muirfield currently permits women (and other non-members) to attend the club as visitors or guests. If a club restricts the terms on which women are permitted to use the club as visitors or guests but does not do so for their male counterparts (for example, by restricting playing time or use of the restaurant) it may fall foul of the Equality Act, as this form of discrimination is expressly prohibited. 

Muirfield Golf Club has already received wide criticism in the media for its decision on membership, and the MSP for East Lothian has lodged a motion at the Scottish Parliament calling for the Club to reconsider. As far as I know, Muirfield has not yet faced legal challenge in respect of this issue. If its latest decision on female members is not reversed, it may be that the Club’s treatment of female guests and visitors comes under closer legal scrutiny.

Rachel McKay
Solicitor

Burness admin