The act covers nine protected characteristics, which cannot be used as a reason to treat people unfairly. Every person has one or more of the protected characteristics, so the act protects everyone against unfair treatment.

The protected characteristics are:


Where this is referred to, it refers to a person belonging to a particular age (eg, 32 year olds) or range of ages (eg, 18-30 year olds)

Disability and Carers

A person has a disability if s/he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Gender Reassignment

The process of transitioning from one gender to another. A person has the protected characteristics of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.

A reference to a transsexual person is also a reference to a person who has the protected characteristics of gender reassignment.

Marriage and civil partnership

Marriage was previously defined as a ‘union between a man and a woman’. However, since the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, same-sex couples can now get married in England and Wales and these are legally recognised as being the same as marriages between a man and woman.

Same-sex couples may alternatively have their relationships legally recognised as ‘civil partnerships’.  Civil partners have the same rights as married couples.

Pregnancy and maternity

Pregnancy is the condition of being pregnant or expecting a baby. Maternity refers to the period after the birth, and is linked to maternity leave in the employment context. In the non-work context, protection against maternity discrimination is for 26 weeks after giving birth, and this includes treating a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding.

Race and Ethnicity

Refers to the protected characteristic of race. It refers to a group of people defined by their race, colour, and nationality (including citizenship) ethnic or national origins.

Religion and belief including lack of belief

Religion has the meaning usually given to it but belief includes religious and philosophical beliefs including lack of belief (e.g. Atheism). Generally, a belief should affect your life choices or the way you live for it to be included in the definition.


A man or a woman. A reference to persons who share a protected characteristics is a reference to persons of the same sex.

Sexual Orientation

Whether a person’s sexual attraction is towards their own sex, the opposite sex or to either sexes.

There are also some useful documents on each of the characteristics on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.