This damning judgment should be a wake-up call for the women’s sector

I’ve never come across any other topic where to ask to talk about it and ask to find solutions that work for everybody is seen as hateful.

Adams v Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre

This week, an employment tribunal ruled that caseworker Roz Adams was subjected to unlawful discrimination and constructive dismissal by Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre (ERCC). 

The tribunal agreed with Adams’ description of what she had suffered as a “heresy hunt” at the hands of ERCC’s senior management. It summarised Adams’ case as being that CEO of ERCC, Mridul Wadhwa, who is a trans-identifying male, was “the invisible hand behind everything that had taken place”. Wadhwa refused to give evidence to the tribunal, and no explanation was offered for this.

The tribunal’s judgment characterised ERCC’s stance as “at the very extreme end of gender identity theory” and concluded that there was “absolutely no need for a Rape Crisis Centre to be seen to take such a stance”. The judgment said this “extreme gender identity belief” was prevalent in the ERCC and held by the respondent’s witnesses: 

“All of them were very clear that there is no such thing as biological sex and that a trans woman is a woman. They believed that a person who was assigned male at birth can become a woman simply by asserting that they now identify as a woman.” 

The “dogmatic way” in which one of the respondents gave evidence was described as “extremely worrying”. Wadhwa’s failure to give evidence was seen as “inexplicable”, and the disciplinary process against Adams Kafkaesque:

“It is unfortunately a classic of its kind, somewhat reminiscent of the work of Franz Kafka. The investigation should not have been launched in the first place and was clearly motivated by a strong belief amongst the senior management and some of the claimant’s colleagues that the claimant’s views were inherently hateful.” 

In March 2023, Mridul Wadhwa spoke at an event at Edinburgh University called Inclusion is beautiful but including is ugly, co-hosted by the university’s Staff Pride Network. Nicole Jones, who now works for Sex Matters but was a student at Edinburgh at the time, attended this event. She told the tribunal that she felt the tone of the meeting did not follow the university’s dignity and respect policy. At the event, Wadhwa “referred to those who enquired about whether or not she had a GRC and stated that this was a transphobic question”, Jones said. Wadhwa described those people as TERFs and said: “Fuck them.” 

He also said at Edinburgh University that the best way to get staff on board with trans inclusion was: “Fire them.” The judgment concluded:

“She [Wadhwa] clearly saw the claimant as some-one who was not on side with the respondent’s belief system. As she subsequently stated to the meeting at Edinburgh University she saw firing people as a way of ensuring the staff in the organisation fully complied with her definition of trans inclusion. The claimant’s beliefs were incompatible with this definition. This was clearly harassment.”

A tweet by Lighthouse Books reporting on the event was submitted as evidence

The ERCC post had been advertised as reserved for a woman. Yet in May 2021, Mridul Wadhwa was announced as its new CEO. Kathryn Dawson, chair of ERCC’s board of directors, said at the time:

“We are delighted that a woman with such a strong track record in improving the lives of women and campaigning against all forms of inequality will be leading our organisation into the future.”

Wadhwa had made comments on the Guilty Feminist podcast about “bigoted” victims of sexual violence:

“Sexual violence happens to bigoted people as well. And so, you know, it is not a discerning crime. But these spaces are also for you. But if you bring unacceptable beliefs that are discriminatory in nature, we will begin to work with you on your journey of recovery from trauma. But please also expect to be challenged on your prejudices.”

His appointment and comments drew widespread criticism from grassroots women’s groups and women’s sector leaders

Rape Crisis Scotland

Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) has now commissioned an independent review into practices and procedures at ERCC. In a statement earlier this year, RCS distanced itself from the centre, describing it as an “autonomous member centre” and as such “Rape Crisis Scotland was not involved in any of the circumstances leading to the tribunal”. 

Taken at face value, this response raises the question of what role RCS actually plays in working with its network and how a regional centre was able to stray so far off course from its organisational purpose. But the Edinburgh centre is not unique in (nor was it quiet in promoting) its adoption of “trans-inclusive” policies. In its responses to the tribunal, RCS repeatedly failed to account for the fact that self-ID is its official position as the umbrella organisation. 

As noted by former MSP Joan McAlpine, RCS did not endorse former Labour MSP Johann Lamont’s successful amendment to the Forensic Services Bill, designed to ensure that victims of sexual assault could choose the sex of their medical examiner. Sandy Brindley, chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, argued that Lamont’s amendment “misses the point” of the Bill. According to The Times, Wadhwa, an SNP candidate at the time, left the party after MSPs overwhelmingly backed the amendment.

RCS was fully supportive of the proposal to bring in legal gender self-ID, as can be seen in its submissions to the UK and Scotland consultations, and was one of 15 signatories of a joint letter opposing the UK government’s intention to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill from becoming law. The letter, published on the RCS website, claims that services in Scotland “already operate on the basis of self-ID” and that “rape crisis services in Scotland have been providing trans inclusive services for 15 years without incident”. The ERCC’s answer on this to the Scottish GRRB consultation is worth reading in full.

“ERCC has been trans-inclusive – on the basis of self-identification – for more than 10 years, and we have never experienced any issues as a result of this, other than abuse, harassment and transphobic attacks because of our trans-inclusive status. In our experience, our self-declaration practice has never been misused or exploited and we have no concerns that it will begin to be with the introduction of self-declaration legislation. Our centre currently has women’s only times and spaces and we recognise that trans women – and trans women on the basis of self-declaration – are women, and are therefore included in those spaces. The safety of our spaces is dependent on our routine risk assessment, practice and policy, and not on the identities of the people who are in them.”

For our report examining the effects of gender-identity beliefs on the women’s sector, Sex Matters commissioned research in part to respond to the narrative advanced during debates about legal gender self-ID: that the women’s sector sees no conflict between women’s rights and the interests of men with transgender identities, and is unaffected by laws allowing people to change their sex as recognised by the state. Leaders in the women’s sector such as Dr Shonagh Dillon and Dr Karen Ingala Smith have spoken up to challenge the claim that this approach causes no problems.

No more no debate

After this damning judgment, the position of Mridul Wadhwa as CEO of ERCC is untenable. Wadhwa led the centre right through the period during which Roz Adams suffered unlawful harassment. He also oversaw the bizarre and extreme trans-inclusion policies that fuelled that harassment.

But the problem goes much deeper than one organisation. Adams is not alone in her experience. She told the BBC that she thought that a large number of people working in the sector are “fearful” of talking about gender identity and the privacy of staff. In our report, interviewees – seasoned leaders within the women’s sector – describe harrowing experiences of being investigated and ostracised, and pressured into adopting policies that compromise women’s welfare and safety. 

The “extreme gender identity belief” shown in the tribunal – the idea that “a person who was assigned male at birth can become a woman simply by asserting that they now identify as a woman” – shows how much gender ideology has undermined the women’s sector’s pursuit of its purpose. “Trans women are women” is the position of RCS: 

“We recognise that trans women – and trans women on the basis of self-declaration – are women, and are therefore included in those spaces.”

The statement issued by ERCC yesterday fails to take responsibility for the “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment” at ERCC. Instead, the board stated vaguely that it was “saddened” by the ruling. We echo Adams’ call for the Scottish Government, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, Rape Crisis Scotland and all those in the sector to “feel emboldened by this judgement to safeguard this important choice for survivors, as part of ensuring services are welcoming to all who need them”. One of the most shocking findings of the tribunal was the ERCC’s policy of not referring women who needed a single-sex service to Beira’s Place. 

Sex-based boundaries matter for everyone, but most especially women who have experienced male violence and sexual assault. By standing up against abusive management, Roz Adams has helped women across the UK.

Adams’ case shows that “no debate” will no longer cut it. In her press statement, she said: 

“It is tragic for me that this ended in Tribunal. For 3 years I consistently offered to enable discussion and I firmly believe we will only find solutions that work for everyone through fearless, respectful, well-informed dialogue.” 

Urgent action is needed

This case should be a wake-up call to the ERCC board and its commissioners and funders. They need to take urgent action to remedy the situation at the centre.

The case also raises serious questions for the Scottish government as one of the main funders of ERCC. Last year, it published an Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services, which looks broadly at the structure and nature of service provision, and arguably sets out the case for single-sex services. The review also acknowledges that “the prevailing climate around trans inclusion may prevent more women from speaking openly”. 

Yesterday, the Scottish government refused to comment on the outcome of the tribunal, but welcomed RCS’s announcement of a review of ERCC’s practices, which is expected to conclude by 30th August. But there is a lack of information on how this review will be carried out, who is involved, and who they will report to. As summarised by policy analysts Murray Blackburn Mackenzie:

“It is not clear at the time of writing who drew up and agreed its detail remit and process, what that is, who appointed the person carrying it out (Vicky Ling) whose name was only shared after further media inquiries, who the review will report to or, most importantly, what input and oversight of this review there will be by those representing local service users, including the local authorities for the area it covers.”

Given the amount of public money involved, the Scottish government should launch a comprehensive review of the RCS network, including the role of RCS as an organisation, in relation to the issues raised by the judgment in Adams v ERCC.

There are sector-wide lessons to be learned on the provision of single-sex services and the treatment of women who stand up for them, who have been subjected to “heresy hunts” for too long. More generally, there are now six wins for gender-critical women in employment tribunal cases: 

  • Forstater v CGD 
  • Bailey v Garden Court 
  • Fahmy v Arts Council England 
  • Phoenix v Open University
  • Meade v Westminster CC and Social Work England 
  • Adams v Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre. 

Employers across the UK need to wake up.  

We call for four actions in addition to the recommendations in our women’s sector report:

  1. The Scottish government to launch a comprehensive review of the RCS network, including the role of RCS as an organisation, in relation to the issues raised by the judgment in Adams v ERCC.
  2. The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator to investigate Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre and take action to protect single-sex charitable objects.
  3. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and Scottish Human Rights Commission to issue guidance and model policies for the women’s sector, to enable the provision of single-sex services with confidence. 
  4. Employers to address the hostile environment for women with gender-critical views.