The protected characteristics are not diverse enough to encourage and protect diversity
The Equality Act 2010 is concerned with discrimination and harassment in respect of nine protected characteristics:
- Sexual orientation;
- Gender reassignment;
- Pregnancy and maternity;
- Religion or belief;
- Disability; and
- Marriage and civil partnership.
But what about protection for being treated less favourably based on your state education? Your accent? Your social class? Your decision not to marry? Or that you do not have children? Or the way you look?
Recently, I attended a seminar on diversity in the tech industry. The majority of points discussed were about promoting a diverse workforce based on gender, race and sexual orientation. But one comment that really made me sit up and involuntarily nod along approvingly was by a female audience member who explained that, throughout her career, she had felt prejudiced and discriminated more often for her northern accent and state education, than she ever had because of her gender or sexual orientation. I saw many heads of different gender, race, age and no doubt of the other six protected characteristics also nod along approvingly.
Unconscious bias has a lot to answer for. Our brains make snap judgments and assessments of people quickly and without us realising. Would you treat an Etonian with a Home Counties accent more favourably than a Northerner with a state education, or perhaps you would treat them less favourably? Have you ever considered a colleague for a new opportunity over others because they are single? Would you consider a request for flexible working from an employee without dependents in the same way as an employee with a young family?
The positives of having a diverse workforce are well known. All employers, regardless of size and sector, should consider how diverse their workforce is and not only how this benefits their business, but how this is perceived to the outside, diverse, world. As long as recruitment is based on merit, arguably there should be no limit to diversity.
What is clear, is that the Equality Act’s protected characteristics only protect less favourable treatment in a limited number of circumstances. Perhaps diversity would be easier to achieve if we replaced the protected characteristics with a general obligation not to treat someone less favourably because of any characteristic, rather than a protected one.