Blog: What does it mean to go Beyond Protected Characteristics?

The Equality Act: What does it mean for the third sector?

The Equality Act (2010) is the central piece of equalities legislation here in the UK and something anyone working in the third sector who is interested in human rights and equalities should be aware of. 

As part of THRE’s Human Rights and Equalities First approach, we talk about the Equality Act in our training sessions when we discuss what protections we have in law. However, the way that we talk about it has evolved since we started conducting our training. 

Initially, we planned to provide a basic overview of the Act, however, we quickly found that our explanation of the Act was getting longer and more nuanced, we realised this was because of a couple of key reasons: 

The first was that we were seeing organisations referring to the Equality Act without real consideration for what it looked like in practice, or that they were using it as a gold standard to aim for rather than a basic foundation to build upon.  

Organisations’ equalities policies were referencing the Act without providing detail about what it meant for their organisation to actually put it into practice. When we talked to the people who were coming to our training, it felt like this was just seen as a commitment to not doing wrong, rather than actively thinking about positive changes that could be made to benefit the people that their organisation interacts with. 

A big theme of our work at THRE is taking policies off the shelf and bringing them to life, and we could see that this was not happening for many organisations when it came to the Equality Act. 

The second reason is that many of the key demographics that the people and organisations coming to our training were working with are not necessarily represented by the Equality Act’s list of Protected Characteristics.  

This list of characteristics are set out in the Act and define what aspects of a person’s identity are protected from discrimination. They are: 

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage or civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation.

Even though the characteristics are more expansive than you might think, for instance, disability includes mental health conditions, cancer diagnoses and learning disabilities, they are too limited to be the sole basis of an organisation’s equality policy. 

As a result, in our training sessions, how we talk about and discuss the Equality Act evolved into a section that looks at and then tries to go beyond the Protected Characteristics and now: 

  • Provides an explanation of the Equality Act and the duties it creates. 
  • Asks attendees to reflect on what is missing from the Protected Characteristics list that may be relevant to their own and other organisations.  
  • Stresses that legislation like the Equality Act is the foundation to be working from – a starting point not the end goal, and that what it looks like in practice will vary based on the specific organisation and the context and needs of its’ work. 

There is now wider recognition that taking a truly equitable approach means going beyond what is set out in the Equality Act and there have been multiple campaigns to expand the list of Protected Characteristics, and a general move in the sector away from providing and using generalised policy templates that aren’t easily adapted to each organisation’s needs.  

However, we realised that there was a lack of resources that brought the Equality Act to life for third sector organisations in Scotland. So, we got to work!  

With the help of a number of organisations who are already innovating and demonstrating good practice, we have compiled a series of resources that provide explanations and case studies to demonstrate exactly what the Equality Act means for the people we work with and support in the third sector, and how it fits into our Human Rights and Equalities First Approach.  

Over the next few months, you can expect to see publications from us that go in-depth into aspects of the Equality Act, Protected Characteristics, and what it really means to take the Equality Act off the shelf and use it to create relevant and useful Equalities policies and action.  

The first of these publications, which provides a more in-depth explanation of the Equality Act and what it means for third sector organisations, is already available – check it out on our Beyond Protected Characteristics Resource Hub.

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