Types of discrimination

Understand what discrimination and harassment look like and what the law says.

Girlguiding expects everyone to be treated equally, fairly and with respect. We know that our members thrive in a safe space where they can be the best that they can be and do not face discrimination or harassment. That means that all our policies, procedures and guidance work to make sure every young member and volunteer is valued and included.

Girlguiding’s own expectations  reflect or exceed the minimum legal requirements in order to ensure all our girls and volunteers are provided a safe and enjoyable guiding experience. No matter their background.

These legal requirements generally come from The Equality Act 2010 – this is the main British legislation which protects different groups from discrimination and unfair treatment. It sets out areas where it would be against the law to treat someone worse than others because of who they are. Find out more about The Equality Act 2010.

Who is protected?

The Equality Act 2010 requires that we do not discriminate against someone due to a protected characteristic. This includes their:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Pregnancy and maternity (including breastfeeding)
  • Race, Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Ethnic origin, nationality (or statelessness) or race
  • Marital or civil partnership status

Discrimination by perception

Sometimes someone may experience different and worse treatment because others wrongly think they have a protected characteristic. This is known as discrimination by perception and is unlawful.

For example, Anne is a unit leader. She hears a rumour that Amina, one of the unit helpers, is pregnant. Anne removes Amina from the helper rota, thinking that during the pregnancy Amina won’t want to come and help. This is discrimination by perception. It does not matter if the rumour is true or not, Anne has treated Amina unfavourably based on a stereotype and discriminated because of pregnancy.

Discrimination by association

Sometimes a person may experience different and worse treatment because of who they are associated with. This is known as discrimination by association and is unlawful.

For example, Jasmine volunteers at a Guide unit and has recently been appointed a leadership role. But after she tells people about her child, who is disabled and has complicated care arrangements, she is suddenly removed from her new role. Withdrawing this opportunity amounts to discrimination because of her association with a disabled person, her child. It doesn’t matter that Jasmine herself is not disabled.

It doesn’t matter if people are from a protected group themselves, they can still discriminate against others who share the same protected characteristic. For example, sex and gender discrimination can still occur between women.

When acting on behalf of Girlguiding in your volunteer role, you have a duty to uphold the law around equality and discrimination.

This summary of key points of equality law and unlawful discrimination can help you in tricky situations. But this is not intended as full legal advice as some situations can vary in legal protection.

Remember that the law is the minimum expectation of equal treatment. Our values as a movement are to not just follow the law but to try our best to exceed these legal requirements. If you are unsure or want advice contact [email protected] and explore the rest of our guidance in including and supporting all in guiding.

Direct discrimination

Discrimination is treating someone differently and worse because of a protected characteristic (including by perception or by association with a protected characteristic).

It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to discriminate or didn’t realise you were acting in a discriminatory way, if the results of your decisions or behaviour led to someone being treated differently.

For example:

  • Ria wants to join her local Guide unit, but her membership is rejected because she’s a Sikh. This is direct discrimination because of race and religion.
  • A town is experiencing increasing racial tension, and conflicts between young members have started happening in the Rangers unit. The leaders decide that they will have alternate meetings for Asian members and white members to avoid confrontation. As this separation by race is a deliberate policy decision, this segregation would be unlawful.
  • Myfanwy has a unit helper who wants to do the Leadership qualification. The unit helper has a learning disability and Myfanwy decides that the unit helper won’t be able to do the training, so tells her that she needs to stay as a unit helper. Although Myfanwy thinks she is making a helpful and sensible decision this amounts to direct disability discrimination.
  • Anya has a severe facial disfigurement, and she applies to volunteer as a unit helper. The leader of the unit strongly rejects Anya’s application. She thinks her disfigurement might ‘scare the girls’. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of disability
  • Nina is 19 years old and has been in guiding since Rainbows. She has been a young leader and now has her LQ; but her commissioner has said she cannot run a unit on her own as she is too young. This would be considered discrimination because of age.

In some circumstances you can treat someone differently because of age if there is a good reason; for example, to provide something that only applies to people of a certain age, like taking part in GOLD. Contact [email protected] if you want more information about age restrictions and what is acceptable.

Indirect discrimination

It is considered unlawful discrimination if you have a policy, a practice, a rule or a make a decision that is applied in the same way for everybody, but has a worse effect on some people than others. Or if it means that some people can’t participate fully. It doesn’t matter if this was intentional or not.

For example:

  • A Rainbow unit needs all its volunteers to take part in a training course. But this course is only ever run on Saturdays. A Jewish member can’t attend on Saturdays due to their religious beliefs, but no alternatives to this training are offered. This would be indirect discrimination because of the protected characteristic of race and religion.
  • A Brownie unit only accepts volunteers who are on the electoral register. This applies to all volunteers in the same way. But  refugees and asylum seekers are less likely to be on the electoral register and therefore they’ll find it more difficult to join. This could be indirect discrimination against refugees and asylum seekers because of the protected characteristic of race, which includes nationality/citizenship, ethnic or national origins.
  • A unit has a ‘no pets’ rule when they go on trips and residentials. They use this rule to stop a disabled member, who has an assistance dog, from coming along. This isn’t because of their disability but because they have a dog with them. This would be discrimination arising from disability unless the unit can objectively justify what it has done.

Sometimes it is lawful to have a policy or way of doing things which would otherwise be direct or indirect unlawful discrimination. However, it would need to be shown that there’s a good reason for making this decision. This is known as having ‘objective justification’ and you need to show that the decision is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

For example:

  • An outdoor activity centre requires everyone to provide a medical certificate for some activities before taking part in any of the activities on offer. This is for health and safety reasons as many of the activities require a certain degree of physical fitness. The requirement applies to everyone, but it’s likely to have a worse effect on some disabled people as they may not be able to provide such a certificate. It could be indirect disability discrimination. Ensuring health and safety is a good enough reason, but because it applies to all the centre’s activities, discrimination is unlikely to be justified. The centre could allow customers to take part in some of the more accessible activities without having to provide a certificate.

If someone approaches you because they think that a decision you have applied to all members is disadvantaging them or a protected group, then you should take this seriously.

Try your best to change the decision or find a way to ensure that they are included.  Ask them their view of what you can do to ensure that they are included. You should always follow Girlguiding policy, procedures and practices. 

Harassment is unwanted behaviour that is offensive, or makes a someone feel degraded, intimidated or humiliated because of a protected characteristic (including by perception or by association).

This is likely to include behaviour such as:

  • Spoken abuse, whether said to or about someone, including anything that claims to be a joke or ‘banter’.
  • Written abuse, including anything said in email or social media.
  • Physical gestures or facial expressions.
  • Through imagery or graffiti, including pictures, photos and drawings.

For example:

  • A volunteer continually refers to a trans woman volunteer as ‘sir’ and ‘he’, despite her objections.
  • A volunteer is regularly subjected to comments from other volunteers such as ‘watch what you say in front of her, it’s her time of the month again’.
  • A Guide unit hosts a summer fete for their local community. A group of adults with learning disabilities attend, accompanied by their support workers. Some of the young Guides make fun of the group with gestures and silently mimicking them. This creates a degrading and humiliating environment for the support workers as well as for the adults they support.
  • A volunteer calls a young member an offensive, racist term. The volunteer knows the young member was born in Britain and their family comes from Turkey but thinks the name calling is just a joke. The young member has told him to stop and is starting to dread coming to unit meetings because of this.
  • At a Ranger unit meeting, an outside speaker makes derogatory comments and jokes about gay and bisexual people. They didn’t intend to offend or humiliate anyone in the audience, but it may amount to harassment if the jokes and comments create a humiliating or offensive environment for the audience.

There is also protection from harassment of a sexual nature and when someone treats you unfairly because you refused to put up with sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can happen between people of different genders and the same gender. It could include:

  • Sexual comments.
  • Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances or touching.
  • Displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature.
  • Sending emails or social media messages of a sexual nature.

For example:

  • A commissioner makes sexual jokes to a volunteer and implies that the volunteer will get additional support or a better role if they are more intimate.
  • A unit visits a local engineering firm for a talk about encouraging girls into science and engineering jobs. On the wall are topless photographs of women. Members who find this offensive could bring a claim for harassment.

It's unlawful to treat someone badly because they have complained about unlawful discrimination or have helped (or are believed to have helped) someone else who may or has claimed to have experienced unlawful discrimination.

For example:

  • Angie helped another volunteer make a harassment complaint against a commissioner. Recently she attended a regional conference and was told by a friend of the commissioner and the event’s organiser that a side session was fully booked and she couldn’t go in. However, as she walked away Angie saw that same volunteer allowing other members into the session.
  • Dean makes a complaint that his child is treated unfairly in the unit. He meets with the unit leader and the commissioner to talk, and the problem is resolved. Then Dean gets told he is no longer needed as a volunteer and is taken off the parent rota. If this is because he complained and the unit leadership team is annoyed by his complaint, then this could be victimisation.


It's unlawful for a person to instruct, cause or induce someone to discriminate against, harass or victimise another person or to attempt to or help someone carry out unlawful discrimination.

The act of telling someone or making someone undertake unlawful discrimination is itself unlawful. It doesn’t matter if someone discriminates against another person themselves or not.

This also protects someone if they have been told to discriminate against someone or a group and they then experience detrimental treatment because they refused or resisted.

For example:

  • A unit leader is told not to allow gypsies or travellers to be part of her unit. But she doesn’t agree with this and lets gypsy and traveller girls join. She is then treated badly as a result and could then be able to prove unlawful discrimination.

Remember, if you think someone in guiding is asking you to discriminate or break the law this is also likely to be a breach of our Code of Conduct and you should contact the compliance team.

Equality and Human Rights Commission - The statutory body to promote and protect equality and human rights has issued guidance for voluntary and community groups.

NCVO - Information on the Equality Act and volunteers.

Equally Ours - Further guidance on the use of the Equality Act by voluntary organisations.


Get advice on including all

Contact us for more information and advice about including all girls and volunteers in guiding.

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