Architect wins €5,000 in discrimination case over ‘male culture’ in State housing agency

The State housing agency maintained the complainant was ‘disappointed with her results in recruitment processes’

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has awarded an architect €5,000 in compensation after finding she had made out a “strong complaint of discrimination” in respect of a “male culture” at the State’s housing agency.

Auveen Coombes-Lynch complained under the Employment Equality Act against her employer, the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency, alleging she was “subjected to a toxic male only” culture which denied her training and experience.

Defending the claim, the State housing agency maintained Ms Coombes-Lynch was “disappointed with her results in recruitment processes”.

In his submission, the agency’s barrister Tom Mallon BL said her case amounted to “allegations and assumptions of discrimination” which were not enough to raise an inference of discrimination.

“Various allegations about managers, things allegedly said or not said and a purported ‘toxic culture’ could not substitute for real evidence,” he said.

Ms Coombes-Lynch, a qualified architect, said senior management had acknowledged her “invaluable” contribution as a staff officer in the agency’s pyrite department and was sponsored to do a project manager course in 2017.

When she applied for project manager roles in the public service, however, she said there was a “perceived shortfall” on her behalf in that she had not been on site visits to get on-site construction experience.

She said she raised this in her annual reviews in 2018 and 2019 but submitted that it was not addressed satisfactorily, despite assurances.

This was “symptomatic of the discriminatory climate she faced”, she said.

In May 2018 she applied for a project manager role and secured a place on a 12-month panel, she said, and applied for another project manager position when the panel expired in June 2019.

She said a colleague, Mr AD, was told by a senior manager that he was “the right man for the job” just three days after the position was advertised – and was “unsurprisingly” appointed following the interviews.

Ms Coombes-Lynch said she felt she was treated with a “lack of professionalism” at the interviews.

After Mr AD’s appointment, other male colleagues were given “extensive site visit experience which was denied to her”.

In December, when she was afforded an opportunity for a site visit, she said the offer was made in a sexist manner “regarding what clothes she should wear”, she said.

It was her case that a manager, Mr JM, took a pattern of actions from 2019 onward which sought to “reduce the importance” of her work.

“Despite her expertise, she was effectively subject to efforts by Mr JM to reassign her,” Ms Coombes-Lynch’s barrister Peter Leonard BL said.

He said “inexperienced male colleagues” were assigned work by Mr JM that was formerly done by his client and that they had to “revert to her for instructions” to get it completed.

The housing agency called a HR representative to give evidence on the project manager interviews carried out in 2018 and 2019.

She said the vacancy in December 2019 was filled from the panel and that there could be “no issue of discrimination” with it.

The HR manager added that “nothing was amiss” with the interviews, which she said were “in keeping with good procedures”.

Mr Mallon, for the respondent, said the complainant had successfully made it on to the project manager panel and that this “completely negated her allegations of discrimination”.

He further submitted that Ms Coombes-Lynch was supported in doing a project management course even though she worked in the administrative side of the agency.

He said no claim of discrimination on access to training could be substantiated on this basis either.

“Suggestions and purported alleged assumptions of gender discrimination... are simply unfounded and have no evidential basis,” he said.

His client could not be expected to “facilitate what would amount to an unjustified evidential “fishing exercise” among management personnel, Mr Mallon said, adding that the complaint was “replete with baseless unsupported suppositions” and that it had to be rejected.

The adjudicating officer, Michael McEntee, noted that there were “heated exchanges” between the two sides’ legal teams at hearing over witness testimony.

“The complainant’s detailed complaint form and her written submissions clearly identified a number of management personnel and one in particular who was, she alleged, largely responsible for the discriminatory ‘male culture’,” he wrote.

“Evidence from and cross-examination of these witnesses would have either completely exonerated the respondent or given sustenance to the complainant’s prima facie case,” he wrote.

In the absence of “potentially vital evidence” from the key respondent managers, Mr McEntee wrote that an inference had to be drawn from the evidence of the complainant and the HR department rep called as a witness by the respondent.

Mr McEntee wrote that Ms Coombes-Lynch had not established a prima facie case of discrimination on gender grounds in relation to promotion and training.

However, he found that she had made out “a sufficient inference for a strong complaint of discrimination regarding the male culture” and that the respondent had failed to rebut it.

He said there was a strong inference from the “considered tactical absence of key management witnesses who could easily have fully rebutted or indeed supported” Ms Coombes-Lynch’s case.

He ordered compensation of €5,000 for the discrimination.