Equality and diversity have always been tricky subjects; they ask us to examine ourselves in order to identify the prejudices and attitudes we hold, as well as to become conscious of the potential power our words and actions have to offend and ostracise people. Fundamentally, Equality and Diversity are about acknowledging that everybody has a right to fair and equal treatment, irrespective of age, gender, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic.
Originally, workplace legislation surrounding these rights were considered something of a ‘grey area’; with around 116 separate laws existing under the broad umbrella of ‘equality and diversity’. In October 2010, these were, at last, merged into one coherent act.
So why did the legislation change?
The Equality and Diversity Act was created to simplify, strengthen, and harmonise existing legislation to provide Britain with a new discrimination law; not only to help protect individuals from inequitable treatment but also to provide and promote a fair and equal society. Originally there were around 9 major equality laws, and 100 or so smaller versions. The new legislation seeks to deviate from a complicated mess of multiple legislation and provide one coherent set of guidelines for employers and employees alike to follow.
‘Protected characteristics’ form the basis of the Equality and Diversity Act, to discriminate against any of the following characteristics is a breach of the law.
- Age: The Act protects people of all ages. Although the specific protections have not yet been fully implemented, age is still the ONLY protected characteristic by which direct, or indirect discrimination can be justified.
- Disability: The Act applies to a range of people who have a condition (physical or psychological) which has a significant and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out ‘day to day’ tasks. It also covers those who are diagnosed with a progressive illness (HIV or Cancer, for example.)
- Gender Reassignment: The definition of gender reassignment has been expanded to include people who choose to live as the opposite gender to the gender assigned to them at birth by removing the previous legal requirement for them to have undergone an official medical procedure.
- Pregnancy and Maternity (Including breastfeeding mothers): A woman is protected against discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity. With regard to employment, the woman is protected during the period of her pregnancy and any statutory maternity leave to which she is entitled. Also, it is unlawful to discriminate against those who breastfeed in public.
- Marriage and Civil Partnership: The Act protects employees who are married or in a civil partnership against discrimination. Single people are not protected.
- Race: This includes colour, ethnic/national origin or nationality.
- Religion or belief: The Act covers any religion, religious or non-religious beliefs. Also includes philosophical belief or non-belief. To be protected, a belief must satisfy various criteria, including that it is a weight and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. The law has recently recognised Veganism as a protected characteristic.
- Sex: Previously referred to as gender. Applies to male or female.
- Sexual orientation: The Act protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual people.
So where does this leave us? Not only as employers and employees but also individuals? Our responsibilities towards Equality and Diversity are numerous; we have a commitment to everybody. It’s about equality diversified to everyone. Not a subset of groups or individuals. Everyone.