€5,000 gender discrimination award for architect over ‘toxic male-only culture’ complaint is overturned

Court questions why ‘eminently practical advice’ about what to wear on site visit would be ‘indicative of a male-oriented culture’

A female administrative worker at a Government housing agency who complained of a “toxic” male culture in the workplace has had her €5,000 discrimination award and gender discrimination finding overturned.

Last June, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ordered the Housing Agency to pay Auveen Coombes-Lynch €5,000 compensation arising from her successful gender discrimination claim under the Employment Equality Act.

In her evidence at the WRC hearing, Ms Coombes-Lynch maintained that despite an exemplary work record and requisite technical qualifications, she “had been subjected to a toxic ‘male only’ culture”.

However, on appeal by the Housing Agency from the WRC, the Labour Court has now overturned the WRC award and findings of gender discrimination.


Delivering the three-member Labour Court ruling, deputy chairman Alan Haugh stated that the court did not accept Ms Coombes-Lynch’s narrative account in relation to an event on December 11th 2019 that establishes a prima facie case of discrimination on the gender ground.

The two other members of the Labour Court - respectively employer and worker members in the case - were both women.

Mr Haugh stated Ms Coombes-Lynch’s clear evidence was that from January 2018 onwards she actively sought the opportunity to complete on-site visits in order to enhance her chances of securing a position as a project manager.

On behalf of the three member court, Mr Haugh stated that Ms Coombes-Lynch now complains that she was offered such an opportunity on December 11th 2019 which happened to fall during a busy period for her department and she was required to complete her own work in addition to undertaking the site visit.

Mr Haugh stated that Ms Coombes-Lynch asserts that had a male colleague been asked to undertake a site visit he would not have been required to complete his day job at the same time.

Mr Haugh found: “This is nothing more than an assertion, unsupported by evidence.”

Mr Haugh further stated that programme manager, named Mr JM in the WRC case, when offering Ms Coombes-Lynch the opportunity to undertake the site visit, advised her not to wear her good clothes when doing so.

Mr Haugh stated that it is unclear to the court why Ms Coombes-Lynch “has chosen to interpret what appears to it to be eminently practical advice as somehow indicative of a male-oriented culture in the respondent’s workplace”.

Mr Haugh stated that when Ms Coombes-Lynch - represented in the case by Peter Leonard BL, instructed by PC Moore & Co Solicitor - returned to the office on the day following her site visit, she says that Mr JM asked her had she enjoyed her day out of the office.

Mr Haugh stated that “the court sees nothing exceptional in this question and certainly can see no basis for the complainant’s allegation that it indicates that [Mr JM] was thereby discriminating against her on the gender ground”.

Mr Haugh stated that “in the court’s experience, such questions are routinely asked of employees, regardless of gender, by colleagues in circumstances where the employee returns to the workplace having been assigned to do something off-site and outside their normal office-based routine”.

The Housing Agency - represented by Tom Mallon BL, instructed by Philip Lee LLP - argued that Ms Coombes-Lynch had failed to adduce any evidence that established facts from which an inference of discrimination on the gender ground could be drawn.

Mr Mallon also stated that Ms Coombes-Lynch was employed in an administrative role by the Housing Agency and the male colleagues she alleges were treated more favourably by being afforded on-site opportunities denied to her were employed in technical roles as engineers who reported to a project manager who in turn reported to the programme manager.

Mr Mallon stated that it made perfect sense, therefore, to assign the named male colleagues to undertake on-site work on a temporary basis when a project manager resigned.

Ms Coombes-Lynch had also appealed the WRC ruling confined to discrimination on the gender ground.

A qualified architect, Ms Coombes-Lynch joined the Housing Agency in November 2015 as a clerical officer and rapidly moved through the ranks to a position of staff officer in 2016.

Before the Labour Court, Ms Coombes-Lynch submitted that she was repeatedly treated less favourably than her male colleagues in so far as she was denied the opportunity by her managers to obtain meaningful on-site project management experience while her immediate male colleagues were regularly facilitated in this regard.

Ms Coombes-Lynch alleged this was indicative of a culture of discrimination within the Housing Agency that favoured the promotion of male candidates over female candidates.

Gordon Deegan

Gordon Deegan

Gordon Deegan is a contributor to The Irish Times