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Protected characteristics

The protected characteristics under Sections 4-12 of the Equality Act 2010 are:


  • Age refers to a person belonging to a particular age group, which can include people of the same age and people of a particular range of ages.
  • The Equality Act 2010 makes discrimination on the grounds of age in employment and education provision unlawful unless it can be objectively justified. An objective justification is defined as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, which means that different treatment can be justifiable if there is objective evidence to support this decision. Objective justification on the grounds of age is unlikely in the higher education sector.
  • The following examples would likely be unlawful:
    • excluding applicants who are over 40 years of age from a medical degree course because they may be too old to practice (particularly as people are working to an older age).
    • refusing to offer a candidate a student facing job, like a Student Adviser, because he/she may be ‘too old to identify’ with students.
  • The Equality Act made provision for a ban on age discrimination in the provision of services and public functions. This ban came into effect from October 2012. However, there remain some exceptions. These are contained in the Equality Act 2010 (Age Exceptions) Order 2012 and include age-based concessions, age verification, clubs and associations concessions and sports (such as under-21 football tournaments).


  • Disability refers to someone who has a physical or mental impairment, where the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. 
  • The Equality Act 2010 definition of disability does not only refer to people who may be visibly disabled, for example, those who are blind or have mobility difficulties, like wheelchair users. It also includes a broad range of conditions like Depression, Diabetes, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Asperger's Syndrome, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, HIV and Schizophrenia.
  • Like other protected groups, disabled people are not allowed to be discriminated against, harassed or victimised for past or present disabilities. Protection for some disabilities, like Multiple Sclerosis, HIV and Cancer, starts at diagnosis even if there are no apparent symptoms. The College has additional responsibilities in relation to disability. These are:
    • a prohibition on discrimination arising from disability.
    • a duty to make reasonable adjustments.
  • It should be noted that under the Equality Act (as with the previous legislation), it is permissible to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person. For example, the College can give a disabled student extra time to sit an examination, which it may deny to a non-disabled person.

Disability information for staff and students

  • The College is a signatory to the Mindful Employers' Charter, which promotes good practice in relation to mental health issues and operates the Disability Confident Scheme, a positive action initiative to increase applications from and support for disabled people. It has been developed by employers and disabled people’s representatives, and is designed to help employers make the most of the opportunities provided by employing disabled people.  The scheme helps us think differently about disability, and improve how we attract, recruit and retain disabled workers.
  • Birkbeck is currently at level 2 which is ‘Employer level’, this helps us:
    • Draw from the widest possible pool of talent
    • Secure high quality staff who are skilled, loyal and hard working
    • Improve employee morale and commitment by demonstrating that we treat all employees fairly
  • For more information please see Disability Confident guidance for levels 1, 2 and 3
  • Mindful Employers: Birkbeck is committed to removing barriers for applicants and staff who have or have had mental health issues. As part of this commitment, the College has signed up to the Mindful Employers Charter, which is aimed at employers who are positive about mental health. We aim to support staff who experience mental health issues and enable managers, through training and guidance, to deliver inclusive practice.

Gender reassignment

  • Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic and the term refers to someone who is transgendered. It includes anyone who has proposed, started or completed a process to change his or her sex. The Equality Act 2010 extends previous protections for transsexual people by, for example, prohibiting indirect discrimination and removing the need for a transsexual person to be under medical supervision to benefit from legal protection. In employment, the Act also requires organisations to treat absences from work because someone proposes to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone gender reassignment in the same way or better as absences due to illness or injury.
  • There is limited data on the number of transgendered people working or studying in the College. It is believed that there are likely to be more transgendered people in higher education than in the population at large. Examples:
    • A colleague who was born female decides to spend the rest of his life living as a man. He tells his departmental administrator, who makes appropriate arrangements. He then starts life at work and home as a man. After discussion with his doctor and a Gender Identity Clinic, he begins hormone treatment and several years later he has gender reassignment surgery. In this case, he would be protected by the gender reassignment provisions of the Equality Act 2010. The HR Business Partners can provide guidance and support on managing the transition process.
    • A student who was born physically male decides to spend the rest of her life as a woman. She starts and continues to live as a woman. As she successfully ‘passes’ as a woman, the student decides that she does not want to seek medical advice nor undergo any medical procedure/treatment. She would similarly be protected by the gender reassignment provisions of the Equality Act 2010.
  • The ECU has produced Guidance on Trans Staff and Students in Higher Education.

Marriage and civil partnership

  • Marriage and Civil Partnership is a protected characteristic referring to a heterosexual couple who are legally married and same-sex couples who have entered into a civil partnership or a civil marriage. People who are neither married nor in a civil partnership are not included in this protected group.
  • Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013. The Act provides for same-sex marriage in England and Wales and its provisions. The Government Equalities Office produced Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act: A Factsheet which explains the impact of the legislation. 

Pregnancy and maternity

  • Pregnancy refers to women who are pregnant, whilst maternity covers a period of 26 weeks after birth. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination because of pregnancy and maternity in employment, education and in the provision of goods and services.
  • This means, for example, that an applicant who wishes to study at the College should not be excluded from admittance because she is pregnant or has recently given birth. Similarly, a woman who is pregnant should not be demoted or overlooked for training or promotion because of her pregnancy.
  • Breastfeeding mothers are also protected. So, for example, it would be discriminatory to ask a woman to leave a University restaurant because she is breastfeeding her baby. This protection extends for the period that the mother breastfeeds her baby (even after 26 weeks).
  • The College provides a comprehensive range of benefits, including contractual maternity pay, paternity leave, adoption and parental leave. Further details are available in the College's Family Leave Policy.


  • Race is a protected characteristic that refers to an individual's race, colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins. The Equality Act 2010 replicates the provisions of previous pieces of legislation: 
    • colour includes, for example, being black or white.
    • nationality includes, for example, being a British, Jamaican or Pakistani citizen.
    • ethnic or national origins include, for example, being from a Roma background or of Chinese heritage.
    • a racial group could be, for example, ‘Black Britons’ which would include people who are both black and British citizens.
  • It is prohibited to discriminate, harass or victimise a student (current, prospective or past), a member of staff (potential, current or past) or visitor to the College because of their race, whether perceived, actual or associated. This includes segregating individuals according to race.
  • Research resources

Religion or belief

  • Religion and belief is a protected characteristic that refers to:
    • a religion (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Rastafarianism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Buddhism).
    • a denomination of a religion (e.g. Anglicanism, Catholicism, Sunni, Lamaism).
    • a religious or philosophical belief (e.g. Humanism, Spiritualism, Atheism and Climate Change).
  • Protection also applies to those who do not have a religion or belief.
  • Not all philosophical beliefs qualify for protection under the Equality Act 2010. Beliefs that do not substantially affect human life, are transitory or do not conform to democratic society, for example, by conflicting with the fundamental rights of others, are not protected. So, for example, neither any cult involved in illegal activities would not satisfy these criteria nor, according to case law, do political beliefs.
  • For staff, time off for religious observance can be agreed as part of the College’s flexible working policy or annual leave policy.


  • Sex (or gender) is the protected characteristic that refers to a man or woman. Protection from sex discrimination is well established within legislation and the College.
  • It is prohibited to discriminate, harass or victimise a student (current, prospective or past), a member of staff (potential, current or past) or a visitor to the College because of their sex, whether this is perceived, actual or associated.
  • The College is active in addressing issues of gender equality, including participating in the Athena SWAN Charter, which seeks to redress gender inequality issues for both staff and students. 
  • Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality (BiGS) is a College forum that provides interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange in gender and sexuality studies. Sign up to the BiGS mailing list to receive information on events and activities.

Sexual orientation

  • Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic relating to a person's sexual orientation towards people of:
    • The same sex as him or her (the person is a gay man or a lesbian).
    • The opposite sex from him or her (the person is heterosexual).
    • Both sexes (the person is bisexual).
  • The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination that is direct or indirect, whether or not it is based on a person's actual or perceived sexual orientation. For example, protection is provided if someone uses homophobic banter (ie comments, words or actions/gestures that refer negatively to gay, lesbian or bisexual people) to a colleague who is presumed to be gay but is, in fact, heterosexual.
  • The College is a proud member of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme.
  • Protection against sexual orientation discrimination has developed through case law, such as:
  • Resources
    • Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality (BiGS) is a College forum that provides interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange in gender and sexuality studies. Sign up to the BiGS mailing list to receive information on events and activities.
    • Stonewall produces a number of resources that provide research findings, guidance on good practice and information that may impact on staff or students. These include:
      • The Double Glazed-Glass Ceiling is a Stonewall report considering the experiences of lesbian women in the workplace. The report looks at how gender and sexual orientation interplay and the impact they have on careers and success in the workplace.
      • Bullying: Preventing the Bullying and Harassment of Gay Employees. Stonewall has developed a guide to understanding and preventing homophobic bullying in the workplace.
      • The Stonewall Proud Employers web platform, which provides advice and guidance on LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace, as well as job listings with LGBTQ-inclusive employers. 
      • One Minority at a Time: Being Black and Gay produced in partnership with the Runnymede Trust, highlights the experiences of Black and Gay Britons.
      • International Students' Services: Supporting Gay Students is an ECU publication that provides information and advice for staff supporting international students.
      • Advancing LGB Equality is an ECU guidance publication about improving the experience of lesbian, gay and bisexual staff and students in higher education.
      • Lesbian and Gay Rights in the World: there has been significant progress towards equality relating to sexual orientation in the UK in the past 40 years. Globally, 110 states/terror ties have some form of anti-discrimination law relating to sexual orientation. However, there are still over 80 states/territories that persecute Lesbians and Gays, including eight where punishment includes the death penalty. ILGA produces maps which detail both the legislative discrimination and protections that exist around the world, which may be helpful in supporting LGBT staff and students.