On January 25, 2022, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that local fitness centers violated Connecticut’s nondiscrimination statute by maintaining a separate workout area for women only.
Two male Complainants, members of the Respondents’ fitness clubs, had filed complaints at the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) alleging discrimination. All members of the fitness centers had access to a main, coed area of the facility. The facilities also offered a section of equipment to women that was designated “women’s only.” The male Complainants were prohibited from using the women-only section of the facilities. The Complainants alleged that they experienced wait times when using equipment in the larger coed area of the facilities and that the fitness centers discriminated against them on the basis of sex by providing women with additional and alternative access to equipment. The case went to a public hearing at the CHRO, and the Human Rights Referee determined that the Respondent fitness centers had not violated state law by maintaining women-only workout areas and dismissed the claims. The CHRO appealed the decision on behalf of the Complainants.
The question before the Connecticut Supreme Court was whether the Public Accommodation Act, found in General Statutes § 46a-64, could be construed to include a customer gender privacy exception to its general prohibition against sex-based discrimination. Connecticut Statutes § 46a-64 prohibits businesses (and others) from discriminating, segregating, or denying anyone full and equal accommodations in any place of public accommodation based on several identifiers including sex, gender identity, race, color, age, national origin. The statute includes limited exceptions, including an exception for separate restrooms and locker rooms. It was undisputed by the parties that the women-only facility did not fall under the locker room exception. In reaching its conclusion that the women-only workout area was discriminatory, the Court held that exceptions to gender-based prohibitions are limited to those expressly provided by the plain language of the statute, which does not include a customer gender privacy exception.
This is not the first debate regarding women-only spaces. Although the case addresses public accommodation discrimination, and not employment discrimination, employers should heed the court’s opinion before instituting a policy or practice that appears to favor one gender, regardless of how well-intentioned that policy or practice is. For instance, women-only coworking spaces have been challenged and largely abandoned as discriminating on the basis of gender identity. More common are workplace or work-related groups that seek to promote camaraderie and empowerment among professionals of a particular gender, race, or nationality (usually referred to as Affinity Groups). Such groups are useful ways to support employees who share common interests or backgrounds, but the groups themselves and any events sponsored by Affinity groups should be open to all employees to ensure that they are non-discriminatory. Before encouraging or sponsoring events, employers need to consider the impact of anti-discrimination laws.
With local and national controversy surrounding initiatives based on protected categories, such as gender, race and nationality, employers should ensure that their policies comply with federal and state anti-discrimination laws. The Labor and Employment Group at Murtha Cullina is available to assist in addressing any questions you may have regarding these issues.