Legal framework

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The Equality Act (2010) provides the legal framework for most of our work. It:

  • consolidated and streamlined previous anti-discrimination legislation
  • made discrimination unlawful in respect of nine ‘protected characteristics’
  • introduced specific duties for public bodies like the University (the Public Sector Equality Duty).

The characteristics protected under the Act are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership (in respect of employment only)
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race (including colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins)
  • religion or belief (including lack of belief)
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

The Act also provides for positive action to be taken to help overcome disadvantage suffered by people who share a protected characteristic. This is not the same as positive discrimination (e.g. employing someone solely because they are female) which is illegal in the UK.

The positive action provisions of the Equality Act (2010) apply to the University both as an employer and as an education provider. S.158 of the Act says that where an employer or education provider reasonably thinks that people who share a protected characteristic:

  1. experience a disadvantage connected to that characteristic; or
  2. have needs that are different from the needs of persons who do not share that characteristic; or
  3. have disproportionately low participation in an activity compared to others who do not share that protected characteristic

they may voluntarily take any action which is a proportionate means of meeting the aims stated in the Act. 'Proportionate’ means that the action is an appropriate way of achieving the aim and reasonably necessary in the circumstances. It would not be proportionate to take positive action if the aim could be equally as well achieved in a less discriminatory way.

These aims are:

  1. enabling or encouraging persons who share the protected characteristic to overcome or minimise that disadvantage;
  2. meeting those needs; or
  3. enabling or encouraging persons who share the protected characteristic to participate in that activity.

Taking positive action could help the University to achieve its objectives under the Public Sector Equality Duty. 

Recruitment and promotion

Employers can take positive action to encourage people from protected groups to apply for jobs and help them make more competitive applications. Taking positive action could enable the University to:

  • recruit a more diverse workforce, introducing a wider range of experience and ideas;
  • more effectively meet current employees’ development needs;
  • fulfil the commitments made in the Equality Policy; and
  • make progress towards our institutional equality objectives.

Council has approved the use of specific positive action measures in relation to staff, including:

  • institutional targets for the representation of women and ethnic minorities in governance bodies and in senior roles;
  • the optional use of a positive action statement in Associate Professor recruitment: ‘Applications are particularly welcome from women and black and minority ethnic candidates, who are under-represented in academic posts in Oxford'; and
  • the requirement to pause the recruitment process before proceeding to interview if the shortlist is insufficiently diverse.

See the Associate Professor Inclusive Recruitment Guidelines for further details.  

The Equality and Diversity Unit has prepared detailed guidance on positive action in recruitment, including practical advice and realistic examples of the types of actions employers might choose to take. The guidance summarises the legal requirements and restrictions and sets out current University policy and practice.

Faculties and departments are warmly encouraged to take positive action to increase diversity in recruitment. Please review the EDU’s guidance and seek advice if you have any queries or concerns:


The University operates a wide range of targeted positive action measures to promote the participation of under-represented groups, including:

  • schools outreach programmes targeted by sex and ethnicity;
  • the use of disability and ethnicity as eligibility criteria in the UNIQ+ graduate access scheme;
  • scholarships and bursaries targeted by sex, ethnicity, nationality and religion.

Please see the University's Graduate Access pages for details of available funding opportunities

Members of the University considering positive action measures such as targeted outreach or restricted scholarships are advised to review the guidance below and seek advice from the EDU. A positive action case and review by Legal Services are likely to be required.  


It is lawful to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person, e.g. in order to make reasonable adjustments. However, positive action could be used as a proportionate means of addressing inequality between disabled people with different impairments in order to target groups experiencing particular disadvantages, different needs or under-representation.


The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides guidance on positive action in its resources on the Equality Act (2010). These documents are available from the EHRC website (link in the right-hand menu).

A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and other conduct prohibited by or under the Equality Act, 2010
  • 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.

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.

Fostering good relations involves:

  • tackling prejudice, and
  • promoting understanding between people from different groups.

The three aims of the Equality Duty apply to eight of the nine protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation). Public bodies must also have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination in employment due to marriage or civil partnership status.

The General Equality Duty also applies to procurement and commissioning, regardless of the value of the contract.

The General Equality Duty replaced separate duties for race, disability and gender and extended their effect across the nine protected characteristics. The purpose of the General Duty is to integrate evidence-based consideration of equality and good relations into the day-to-day business of public authorities, including universities. Rather than simply seeking to avoid discrimination, public bodies must consider how they could make a more positive contribution to the advancement of equality.

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) consists of two parts:

  • the General Equality Duty, and
  • specific duties governing how public bodies demonstrate that they are meeting the aims of the Equality Duty.

Meeting the Public Sector Equality Duty at Oxford

The Equality Act places all public bodies under an active duty to promote equality, which includes:

  • having due regard to the aims of the General Equality Duty ‘in the exercise of their functions’
  • carrying out equality analysis
  • setting at least one equality objective every four years
  • publishing information and data to demonstrate their compliance with the Equality Duty by 30 March each year, and
  • for those with more than 250 employees, publishing gender pay gap data by 30 March each year.

A set of resources is available in Equality analysis to support those responsible for implementing the Duty in relation to policy and decision-making, including:

  • a PowerPoint briefing
  • guidance on conducting equality analysis
  • a template checklist for recording the outcomes of such analysis, and
  • template text for committee papers and minutes.

See the section on publication requirements below for more detailed guidance on annual reporting under the Equality Act, including gender pay gap reporting.

Specific duties set out the publication requirements for public bodies, including:

  • information to demonstrate compliance with the General Equality Duty
  • equality objectives, and
  • gender pay gap reporting.  

Publication of information

Public bodies must publish ‘information’ to demonstrate how they have had due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Equality Act
  • advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it; and
  • foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.

The information must be published by 30 March each year.

It must include, in particular, information relating to persons who share a relevant protected characteristic who are:

  • its employees (if it has more than 150), and
  • other persons affected by its policies and practices.

The information must be published in a manner that is accessible to the public, and may be included within another published document.

The University publishes an annual Equality Report in fulfilment of this requirement. 

Equality objectives

All public bodies must prepare and publish one or more specific and measurable objective which they think they should achieve in order to meet any of the aims of the General Equality Duty. The objective(s) had to be published by 30 March 2018 and at least every four years thereafter.

The University has agreed a suite of equality objectives reflecting Oxford’s strategic priorities in relation to recruitment, progression and equality of opportunity. 

Gender pay gap reporting

In 2017, new regulations were introduced requiring public bodies with 250 or more employees to publish detailed information on their gender pay gap. The snapshot data for 31 March must be published by 30 March in the following year, and must be:

  • accessible to all employees and to the public, and
  • available for at least three years.

 Pay gaps are calculated in relation to:

  • median and mean gross hourly pay gaps
  • median and mean bonus pay gaps
  • percentage of female and of male relevant employees who received bonus pay
  • percentage of female and of male relevant employees in each pay quartile

See the HR Support website for guidance on gender pay gap reporting.