Protected characteristics

Protected characteristics are specific aspects of a person’s identity defined by the Equality Act 2010. The ‘protection’ relates to protection from discrimination, which is the conscious or unconscious unjust or prejudicial treatment of those with protected characteristics. This extends to discrimination by association, or by perception.

For further information, visit Equality and Human Rights Commission.

As defined by the Equality Act, protected characteristics are:


A person belonging to a particular age or within an age range. A difference in treatment may be lawful if an employer can clearly justify in respect of the role, otherwise known as objective justification. For example, a building company refuses to employ under-18s on site because accident statistics show that it can be dangerous for them.


A person has a disability if they have 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 sex to another. To be protected from discrimination, transgender people do not need to have undergone any specific treatment or surgery to change from their birth sex to preferred gender. This is because changing physiological or other gender attributes is a personal process rather than a medical one.

Marriage and Civil Partnership

Marriage is a union between two people. Couples can also have their relationships legally recognised as civil partnerships. Civil partners must not be treated less favourably than 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. Protection extends to those who are breastfeeding.


A group of people defined by their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origins. A racial group can be made up of two or more distinct groups, for example, Black Britons, or British Asians.

Religion and Belief

Religion refers to any religion, including atheism (lack of religion). Belief refers to any religious or philosophical belief and includes a lack of belief. Generally, a belief should affect your life choices or the way you live.


In the Equality Act, sex can mean either male or female, or a group of people like men or women. A difference in treatment may be lawful if an organisation is taking positive action to encourage under-represented or disadvantaged people. For example, an engineering firm places a job advert for a trainee engineer stating that applications from women are welcome.

Sexual Orientation

Whether a person’s sexual attraction is towards their own sex, the opposite sex, or to both sexes. A difference in treatment may be lawful if belonging to a particular sexual orientation is essential for a job, otherwise known as an occupational requirement. For example, a LGBTQIA+ adviser who has experience of coming out for a helpline.