The University of Sheffield
Human Resources

Protected Characteristics

Protected Characteristics

The Equality Act covers the same groups that were protected by existing equality legislation – age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity. These are now called `protected characteristics´. The Act extends some protections to characteristics that were not previously covered, and also strengthens particular aspects of equality law.

Age (no change)

The Act protects people of all ages. However, different treatment because of age is not unlawful direct or indirect discrimination if you can justify it (for example if you can demonstrate that it is a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim). Age is the only protected characteristic that allows employers to justify direct discrimination.

Disability (new definition and changes)

The Act has made it easier for a person to show that they are disabled and protected from disability discrimination. Under the Act, a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and longterm adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, which would include things like using a telephone, reading a book or using public transport.

As before, the Act puts a duty on the employer to make reasonable adjustments for staff to help them overcome disadvantage resulting from an impairment (for example, by providing assistive technologies to help visually impaired staff use computers effectively).

The Act includes a new protection from discrimination arising from disability. This states that it is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability (for example, a tendency to make spelling mistakes arising from dyslexia). This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer or other person acting for the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability. This type of discrimination is only justifiable if an employer can show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Additionally, indirect discrimination now covers disabled people. This means that a job applicant or employee could claim that a particular rule or requirement you have in place disadvantages people with the same disability. Unless you could justify this, it would be unlawful. The Act also includes a new provision which makes it unlawful, except in certain circumstances, for employers to ask about a candidate´s health before offering them work.

Gender reassignment (new definition)

The Act provides protection for transsexual people. A transsexual person is someone who proposes to, starts or has completed a process to change his or her gender. The Act no longer requires a person to be under medical supervision to be protected – so a woman who decides to live as a man but does not undergo any medical procedures would be covered.

It is discrimination to treat transsexual people less favourably for being absent from work because they propose to undergo, are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment than they would be treated if they were absent because they were ill or injured

This is being taken into account as part of the review of Sickness Absence, and will be integrated within the updated policy.

Marriage and civil partnership (no change)

The Act protects employees who are married or in a civil partnership against discrimination. Single people are not protected.

Pregnancy and maternity (no change)

A woman is protected against discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity during the period of her pregnancy and any statutory maternity leave to which she is entitled. During this period, pregnancy and maternity discrimination cannot be treated as sex discrimination. You must not take into account an employee´s period of absence due to pregnancy-related illness when making a decision about her employment.

Breastfeeding is now explicitly protected, and needs to be brought to the attention of the providers of e.g. our catering services, or any on-campus retail outlets.

Race (no change)

For the purposes of the Act `race´ includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins.

Religion or belief (no change)

In the Equality Act, religion includes any religion. It also includes no religion, in other words employees or jobseekers are protected if they do not follow a certain religion or have no religion at all. Additionally, a religion must have a clear structure and belief system. Belief means any religious or philosophical belief or no belief. To be protected, a belief must satisfy various criteria, including that it is a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. Denominations or sects within a religion can be considered a protected religion or religious belief. Discrimination because of religion or belief can occur even where both the discriminator and recipient are of the same religion or belief.

This characteristic includes having a religion or belief and not having one. It does not include political beliefs, scientific beliefs, or supporting football teams. However, there has been a tribunal case where a belief in man-made climate change met the threshold of the belief being `cogent, serious and worthy of respect in a democratic society.´ We have to be mindful of this threshold when determining if a person´s belief falls under the protection of the Equality Act. It is important to note that minority religions are treated with the same consideration and respect as more prominent religions.

Sex (no change)

Both men and women are protected under the Act.

Sexual orientation (no change)

The Act protects bisexual, gay, heterosexual and lesbian people.