January 23, 2024 - 7:00am

A gender-critical academic has won her case against the Open University. In a significant victory for academic freedom, an employment tribunal has concluded that Professor Jo Phoenix suffered discrimination, harassment and was constructively dismissed by the OU. Crucially, the tribunal found that the university failed to protect Phoenix out of “fear of being seen to support gender-critical beliefs”.

The 155-page judgment, which was published on Monday afternoon, found that colleagues compared Phoenix to a “racist uncle”. They also posted statements on the OU’s website claiming gender-critical beliefs fostered an environment which endangered the lives of trans people. More than 380 academics signed a public letter calling on the OU to close down Phoenix’s research group.

Phoenix posted news of her victory on X, describing it as “a message to all universities: you cannot stand back and allow gender critical academics to be hounded out of their jobs.” The judgment comes only days after a report by the Committee for Academic Freedom revealed that nine universities have policies under which academics who don’t believe that transwomen are women are considered “transphobic”. They include Imperial College, Sheffield Hallam University and the London Business School.

Such policies are clearly in conflict with both the right to free expression and the intellectually curious atmosphere that should exist in higher education. They are further evidence of the way in which trans lobbyists have degraded basic rights in one institution after another, forcing people to accept transparent nonsense about “gender identity”. 

Phoenix’s victory, though welcome, has come at great personal cost. When I first interviewed her, more than two years ago, she had just announced that she was bringing a case against the OU. She had decided to leave her “dream job” at the university after experiencing unremitting hostility from colleagues, leaving her sleepless and diagnosed with PTSD. Her offence? Conducting research on the effects of allowing trans-identified men, including convicted sex offenders, to serve their sentences in women’s prisons. 

Since then, the policy has blown up into a scandal, thanks to the spectacle of a double rapist being briefly housed in a women’s prison in Scotland. Former inmates have talked about their fears at having to share showers and toilet facilities with men who walked around with obvious erections, despite claiming to be women. But Phoenix told me that her research had turned her into a hate figure, metaphorically put in the stocks by colleagues who accused her of transphobia. 

Her ordeal is an indictment of a conspicuous lack of courage at some British universities, which appear to be more concerned about being accused of the T-word than their duty towards staff and students. They have even allowed trans activists to prevent screenings of a documentary, Adult Human Female, which expresses perfectly legal views about sex and gender. (To its credit, Reading University, where Phoenix is now Professor in Criminology, is an honourable exception.)

But why should it be up to individuals to expose the shabby behaviour of institutions captured by gender extremism? One by one the dominoes are falling: the OU, Westminster City Council, Arts Council England, an NGO called the Center for Global Development. They’ve all lost at employment tribunals and more cases are pending, including one against the Greens. 

Future generations will surely look back in disbelief at a time when women had to go to court to assert their right to believe in biological sex — and supposedly liberal politicians were too pusillanimous to support them.


Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.

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