Despite political rhetoric the UK actually has a long history of inequality and discrimination (less favourable treatment), on grounds of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Yet awareness of these different forms of discrimination has been uneven and historians can contribute significantly to understanding the factors which have inhibited it or driven it forward.  

The first major advances came during the long period of prosperity after 1945, which led to a more confident, less deferential and more open-minded nation: groups which had until then been at best objects of philanthropic concern, and at worst criminalised and persecuted, began organising and speaking for themselves.
Partly in response to this, there was a remarkable run of legislation in the late 1960s. This in turn stimulated larger-scale, more colourful campaigning during the 1970s and the emergence of new campaigning groups.

After Britain joined what was then the European Community, these groups were able to use the European Court of Human Rights to challenge UK legislation, culminating in another wave of reforms promoting equality after 1997. However, progress in legal protection has not translated directly into social, cultural and political equality. One of the key inhibitors has been the persistence of hostility and prejudice, reinforced and reflected by some sections of the media.  Meanwhile, one of the key drivers toward equality has been organised activism by people experiencing inequality, with the support of others, and using media opportunities that were unthinkable in 1946.

The Race Relations Act 1965 was the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination. Although it was criticised because it only covered discrimination in specified public places, the act laid the foundations for more effective legislation. It also set up the Race Relations Board to consider complaints brought under the act. The 1976: Race Relations Act was established to prevent race discrimination. It made race discrimination unlawful in employment, training, housing, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services.

Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act brought together more than 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single act - a new, streamlined legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all. The Equality Act became law in 2010. It covers everyone in Britain and protects people from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. It provides Britain with a discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. Everyone in Britain is protected. This is because the Equality Act protects people against discrimination because of the protected characteristics that we all have. Under the Equality Act, there are nine protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

There are some important differences depending on which protected characteristic you have. In addition people can belong to more than one characteristic and can be discriminated on more than one ground or a combination of both. This is known as intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.

In other words, intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “woman” and “black”) do not exist independently

Under the Equality Act you are protected from discrimination when:

  • you are in the workplace
  • you use public services like healthcare (for example, visiting your doctor or local hospital) or education (for example, at your school or college)
  • you use businesses and other organisations that provide services and goods (like shops, restaurants, and cinemas)
  • you use transport
  • you join a club or association (for example, your local tennis club)
  • you have contact with public bodies like your local council or government departments

Equality v Equity

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) describe equality as:

“Ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.”

In other words, equality means ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities and receives the same treatment and support. 

Equity is about giving people what they need, in order to make things fair. This is not the same as equality, nor is it the same as inequality. It is simply giving more to those who need it, which is proportionate to their own circumstances, in order to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities.

Equality v Equity

Equality - In the first image, it’s assumed that everyone will benefit from the same supports. They are being treated equally.

Equity - In the second image, individuals are given different supports to make it possible for them to have equal access to the game. They are being treated equitably.


For more information:
Public Sector Equality Duty | Equality and Human Rights Commission 
A history of human rights in Britain | Equality and Human Rights Commission
Unequal Britain: equalities in Britain since 1945 | History and Policy

UK Diversity Timeline
What is the Equality Act? | Equality and Human Rights Commission
Your rights under the Equality Act 2010 | Equality and Human Rights Commission
What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? | YW Boston
Intersectionality: race, gender and other aspects of identity in social work with young people - Community Care
Race and ethnicity | Inequality: the IFS Deaton Review

Public Sector Equality Duty

The Equality Act also requires public bodies (like local councils, hospitals, and publicly-funded service providers) to consider how their decisions and policies affect people with different protected characteristics. The public body also should have evidence to show how it has done this. 

For example, a local authority wants to improve its local bus service. It carries out a survey of people who use public transport and finds that very few women use buses at night because they are worried about sexual harassment. The local authority decides to work with the police and the transport provider, as well as local residents, to find ways to address this problem and make the bus service more inclusive.

The equality duty replaced the race, disability and gender equality duties. The first of these duties, the race equality duty in 2001, came out of the Macpherson Report on the murder of the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence. Following failures of the investigation of Lawrence’s murder, the report revealed institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police. It was clear that a radical rethink was needed in the approach that public sector organisations were taking towards addressing discrimination and racism.

The equality duty was developed in order to harmonise the equality duties and to extend it across the protected characteristics. It consists of a general equality duty, supported by specific duties which are imposed by secondary legislation.  In summary, those subject to the equality duty must, in the exercise of their functions, have due regard to the need to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act.
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

These are sometimes referred to as the three aims or arms of the general equality duty. The Act explains that having due regard for advancing equality involves:

  • Removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics.
  • Taking steps to meet the needs of people from protected groups where these are different from the needs of other people.
  • Encouraging people from protected groups to participate in public life or in other activities where their participation is disproportionately low.

The Act states that meeting different needs involves taking steps to take account of disabled people's disabilities. It describes fostering good relations as tackling prejudice and promoting understanding between people from different groups. It states that compliance with the duty may involve treating some people more favourably than others.

The equality duty covers the nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.  Public authorities also need to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination against someone because of their marriage or civil partnership status.

In Scotland, the Scottish Specific Duties Regulations apply to listed public authorities in Scotland and covers the following:

  • Duty to report progress on mainstreaming the equality duty
  • Duty to publish equality outcomes and report progress
  • Duty to assess and review policies and practices
  • Duty to gather and use employee information
  • Duty to publish gender pay gap information
  • Duty to publish statements on equal pay, etc.
  • Duty to consider award criteria and conditions in relation to public procurement
  • Duty to publish in a manner that is accessible, etc.
  • Duty to consider other matters
  • Duty of the Scottish Ministers to publish proposals to enable better performance


Private Sector Employment

Black employees hold just 1.5 per cent of top management roles in the UK private sector, research has found; a figure that has increased just 0.1 percentage points since 2014.

 A Business in the Community (BITC) report, Race at the Top: Revisited, found just 54,900 of the 3.9 million managers, directors and senior officials in the UK are black.  According to the report, there has been even less progress on black representation in the public sector, where the number of black employees in leadership roles remained static at 1 per cent over the same period.

There highlights a significant lack of racial diversity at the top of UK organisations across all sectors, particularly at senior levels. Black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals in the UK are both less likely to get in and get on in the workplace compared with their white counterparts. One in eight of the working-age population is from a BME background, yet they occupy only one in sixteen of top management positions.

  • 30.2% of workers in the UK worked in the public administration, education and health sector in 2018 – the highest percentage out of all sectors
  • the public administration, education and health sector employed the highest percentage of workers in almost every ethnic group
  • the combined Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic group had a higher percentage of workers in the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector than any other ethnic group (30.7%)

In Scotland, minority ethnically diverse people continue to experience greater labour market inequalities. They continue to have unequal and disproportionate access to employment and representation at all levels, grades and occupation types in Scotland’s workforce. Both quantitative and qualitative evidence suggests there is consistent disparity between labour outcomes for white and minority ethnic populations. The latest minority ethnic unemployment rate in Scotland is more than double the white unemployment rate.

Some key considerations for employers to address key structural and cultural barriers based on these findings are

  • Understand what is happening in your organisation
  • Be aware of intersectionality and examine progression barriers through multiple lenses
  • Critically appraise your organisation culture
  • Actively encourage employee voice to inform change
  • Address unconscious bias, macroaggressions and white privilege issues. (see sections here)

Tips for practitoners

  • Provide practical support for race pay gap, recruitment etc. reporting
  • Develop guidance for employer action
  • Advocate and support better quality people management practice


For more info: benefits/employment/employment-by-sector/latest

Was this helpful?
This will help us improve this site.

Our Funders