Sexual reproduction is a nearly universal feature of eukaryotic organisms. Meiosis appears to have had a single ancient origin, but the mechanisms underlying male or female sex determination are diverse and have emerged repeatedly and independently in the different eukaryotic groups. The brown algae are a group of multicellular photosynthetic eukaryotes that have a distinct evolutionary history compared with animals and plants, as they have been evolving independently for over 1 billion yr. Here, we review recent work using the brown alga Ectocarpus as a model organism to study haploid sex chromosomes, and highlight how the diversity of reproductive and life cycle features of the brown algae offer unique opportunities to characterize the evolutionary forces and the mechanisms underlying the evolution of sex determination. © 2019 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2019 New Phytologist Trust.