Protected Characteristics

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination on the grounds of these protected characteristics:


The law protects people in ‘any particular age group’. The section of the Equality Act 2010 dealing with age discrimination in services and public functions has not yet come into force, so there is currently no protection in this area. This is expected to come into force in 2012.


Disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial, long-term effect on ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This can include a very wide range of physical, sensory, cognitive, mental health, communication or learning difficulties and disabilities.

Protection applies across all areas covered by the Act, with some minor limitations and exceptions. The Act also brings new protection from discrimination arising from disability (treating someone unfairly for a reason connected to their disability) and indirect discrimination (which previously didn’t apply to disability).

The Act restricts the ways in which employers can gather information about job applicants’ health or disabilities. Employers can only ask for information which is to be used for a legitimate purpose, for example to allow them to make reasonable adjustments. This means organisations shouldn’t ask for information on sickness absence, issue medical questionnaires etc. during recruitment. Once a job offer (even a conditional one) has been made, employers can then ask these types of questions. This is intended to make it easier to identify employers who discriminate against disabled people.

Gender Reassignment

People who intend to undergo, are undergoing or have undergone a gender reassignment process (or part of a process) are protected. The Equality Act 2010 differs from the previous law in that people do not need to be medically supervised through their gender reassignment. This means that a much wider range of people are now protected. However, trans identity is more diverse than this, so many people at risk of discrimination are still not protected.

Gender reassignment is protected across the Act, with some minor limitations and exceptions.

Marriage and Civil Partnership

Married people and civil partners are protected at work under the Equality Act 2010, but not in any other area. Marriage and civil partnership were previously included in the Sex Discrimination Act. Single people are not protected, so it is legal to offer benefits or more favourable treatment to married people and civil partners.

Pregnancy and Maternity

Pregnant women are protected from conception until 26 weeks after childbirth (including stillbirth). They are protected across the Act, with some minor limitations and exceptions. Pregnancy and maternity were previously included in the Sex Discrimination Act.


All people are protected with regards to race. The Equality Act 2010 defines race as including colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins. People of mixed heritage are also protected as the Act states a racial group can be made up of two or more racial groups. People are protected on grounds of race across the Act, with very few exceptions (these are mainly intended to allow for work which aims to tackle disadvantage faced by racial groups).

Religion or Belief

All people can be protected with regards to religion or belief, including those who do not hold a religion or belief. People are also protected from discrimination where the person who is discriminating is of the same religion or belief. Strongly held philosophical beliefs are protected, but party political beliefs are unlikely to ever qualify for protection.

People are protected on grounds of religion or belief across the Act, with some exceptions to allow religious organisations, associations and charities to undertake their work and restrict their membership and provision to followers of their religion.


Men and women are protected with regards to sex. Protection is across all areas of the Equality Act 2010 with particular provisions on sex equality at work (including on equal pay and access to pension schemes). Importantly, new rules on pay secrecy are included to reduce barriers to equal pay claims by preventing employers from stopping workers sharing information about what they earn with colleagues. This applies to all protected characteristics but will have a particular impact on sex equality. In terms of sex discrimination, another change is that equal pay cases on direct pay discrimination do not need a ‘real’ person as a comparator (the person someone is compared with to see if their pay is unfair). There needs to be evidence that better pay would have been received if the person was of the opposite sex.

The Act contains provisions to allow single sex activities in many areas, for example sports competitions and single sex schools. As a general rule, single sex provision is legal if it makes the service more effective, is more appropriate for the people who need the service and is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

The Equality Act 2010 brings in sex discrimination provisions which make it illegal to prevent a woman from breastfeeding in a public place. This is new in England and Wales but not in Scotland, where legislation was introduced separately in 2005.

Sexual Orientation

People of all sexual orientations (bisexual, gay, lesbian, heterosexual/straight) are protected under the Equality Act 2010. However, people who regard themselves as celibate or asexual/non-sexual are not protected on those grounds. Sexual orientation only refers to the gender of the people someone is mainly attracted to.

There are several limitations and exceptions, for example religious organisations have leeway in some circumstances to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation in employment, use of premises or facilities and goods and services provision (but not where services are publicly funded).

Back to Equality Key Concepts