Lucy is a trans woman, who contacted a catalogue shopping account provider to ask about the balance of her account. She was asked a number of security questions to validate her identity, but the provider didn't think she was the genuine account holder.

What happened

Lucy is a trans woman, who contacted a catalogue shopping account provider to ask about the balance of her account following the return of an item. She was asked a number of security questions to validate her identity.

Lucy answered all the security questions correctly, but the call handler wasn’t satisfied she was speaking to the genuine account holder. They said the caller - Lucy – had a male voice, and they could see on file that the account holder was female. They refused to continue the call with Lucy and asked to speak to the genuine account holder. When Lucy told them she was the genuine account holder, the call handler terminated the call.

Lucy was upset that the call handler had challenged her gender identity, and so she complained to the business. She said the culmination of this, and previous similar incidents, had affected her confidence and made her feel depressed, to the extent that she was unwilling go out in public for around a week after the conversation. Lucy said that the interaction was an example of the intolerance trans people had to face in everyday life.

The business accepted a mistake had been made but said the call handler hadn’t intended to cause any offence and was only seeking to protect Lucy’s account. It offered Lucy £25 off her next order with them. Lucy didn’t think this sum appropriately recognised the distress she’d experienced and so she asked us for help.

What we said

We listened to the call that Lucy had with the business. It was clear that the call hander hadn’t intended to be rude but had assumed the gender of the caller based on voice tone and pitch and raised security concerns solely on this basis.

We pointed out to the business that there are a number of reasons why a customer’s voice might sound higher or lower on the phone than a call handler might expect. There is no standard male voice or female voice, but rather a wide range of voice pitches which typically – but not always – correlate to biological sex, and these ranges can overlap. Furthermore, some surgeries, certain illnesses, and even lifestyle choices – such as smoking – can all have an impact on the pitch of someone’s voice. These points taken together mean that voice tone and pitch - in relation to the customer’s gender as stated on file - isn’t a reliable or consistent indicator of a customer’s identity.

Given this we said that if the business wasn’t satisfied that the caller was the genuine account holder, they ought to have asked further security questions known only to the genuine account holder instead.

We also acknowledged what Lucy had told us about the depression and anxiety this incident had caused her, especially in the light of her previous experiences. As such, we didn’t think the business’s offer of £25 off her next order was enough to compensate her.

We explained the distress this interaction had caused Lucy to the business, and that it had impacted her confidence to the point she had isolated herself for a week. We recommended the business pay Lucy £350 to compensate her for the upset caused. The business agreed.