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What is discrimination?

Discrimination means treating some people differently to others because they happen to belong to a particular group – for example, because they are female, because they are from a particular ethnic group, or because they have a disability. 

Discrimination can occur in many different places, such as:

  • At work
  • At school or TAFE
  • When you’re looking for a place to stay or live
  • When you are buying something or trying to access certain services or facilities

Racial discrimination

Racial discrimination happens when you are treated less fairly than someone else in similar circumstances because of your race, colour, descent or national or ethnic background. This is direct discrimination. Racial discrimination can also be indirect when a requirement that is the same for everyone has an unfair effect on some people because of their race, colour, descent or national or ethnic background, such as a dress policy for employees which does not allow you to wear head-dress, which would indirectly discriminate against those who wear a head-dress for religious or cultural reasons.

Inciting hatred because of someone’s race, disability, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity or religious belief or activity is also an offence, called racial vilification.

Threatening physical acts of violence or inciting others to threaten physical violence against a person and/or their property, because of the person’s race, is classified as serious racial vilification and carries more severe penalties for the offender.

Sex discrimination

Sex discrimination happens when you are treated less fairly than another person in similar circumstances because of your sex, marital status or pregnancy. This is direct discrimination. Sex discrimination can also be indirect when a requirement that is the same for everyone has an unfair effect on some people because of their sex or marital status or because you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Sexual harassment is also a form of sex discrimination. Sexual harassment means an unwelcome or unwanted sexual advance, sexual suggestions or comments which humiliate, offend or intimidate you. Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Dirty jokes
  • Touching
  • Kissing

Homosexual, transgender and HIV/AIDS vilification

It is unlawful for a person, to incite hatred towards or severely ridicule anyone because of their homosexuality or transgender status or because they have HIV/AIDS (or are thought to have HIV/AIDS).

Threatening physical acts of violence or inciting others to threaten physical violence against a person and/or their property, because of their homosexuality or transgender status or because they have/are thought to have HIV/AIDS, is classified as serious vilification and carries more severe penalties for the offender.

Age discrimination

Age discrimination happens when an opportunity is denied to you because of your age and where the age is irrelevant to your ability to take advantage of that opportunity. This is direct discrimination when you are treated less favourably because of your age than a person of another age group would be treated in the same or similar circumstances (e.g. you are refused rental accommodation because the agent assumes young people will not properly maintain the property).

Age discrimination can also be indirect when there is a requirement, condition or practice that is the same for everyone but has an unfair effect on a person of a particular age (e.g. where an employer requires employees to be available during school hours and that requirement is unreasonable because, for instance, the store is open beyond school hours and therefore has the ability to provide students with shifts after school)

Disability discrimination

Disability discrimination happens when people with a disability are treated less fairly than people without a disability. Disability discrimination also happens when people are treated less fairly because they are relatives, friends, carers or co-workers of a person with a disability. For example, you cannot be discriminated against if you will need time off work to look after someone with a disability.

It is also disability discrimination to harass someone because of a disability. This can include insults or jokes which offend them.

To find out what is meant by “disability” see: What is a disability?

This information was last reviewed in March 2009.

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