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What is discrimination?

Grounds of discrimination

What’s not discrimination?

What’s the difference between discrimination, harassment and bullying?

Discrimination in your employment

Discrimination at school

Discrimination in your sport or club

People you can talk to for support 

What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person is treated unfairly because that person has an attribute or a personal characteristic. For the person to be discriminated against the attribute or personal characteristic must be protected by law.

Grounds of discrimination 

Not all attributes or personal characteristics will be grounds of discrimination. That is, not all attributes or personal characteristics are protected by law. 

The only personal characteristics on which you can be discriminated against are:

religious belief or activity
irrelevant medical record
marital status
breast feeding
trade union or employer association activity
political opinion, affiliation or activity
irrelevant criminal record
association with a person who has, or is believed to have one of these attributes.
Being treated differently is not always discrimination. 

For example, it is not discrimination if:

you are treated differently at work because you have performed poorly and it not because of a personal characteristic (like your race, age or gender);  
you don’t get a job because you don’t meet the job requirements (for example, you need to have a driver’s licence and you aren’t old enough to get one); or 
you are treated unfairly because of a personal characteristic that is not protected (eg you do not receive a promotion because you are overweight).
Discrimination is different from sexual harassment and bullying. 

Sexual harassment is sexual behaviour which offends you, or makes you feel humiliated or intimidated.  Check out the Sexual Assault & Sexual Harassment Lawstuff page for more information.

Bullying can overlap with discrimination, but not always. Bullying can include verbal or physical abuse, such as yelling, screaming or offensive language or even non-physical or non-verbal actions, such as isolation. In some instances (like at work), bullying is against the law. Check out the School Bullying Lawstuff page for more information about school bullying.
Your employer and coworkers cannot discriminate against you when you work for them or when they are interviewing and hiring you. 

Some common forms of less favourable treatment in the workplace include:
being denied access to training, transfers and/or promotions;
being subject to unfair terms or conditions of employment; 
having your employment terminated;
having your shifts cut down; 
consistently having to do the most difficult or worst work when others do not have to do the work;
being excluded or isolated; 
working for unequal pay; or
having derogatory statements made about you. 

If you are treated in the above ways, because you have a personal characteristic, that is protected by law, then this may be discrimination.  In certain situations, your employer may have to do more to ensure that you aren’t indirectly discriminated against in your workplace. For example, if you have a disability, your employer may need to make reasonable adjustments at the workplace such as introducing a ramp for wheelchair access or employing read-aloud software programs for the visually impaired.  

Even if your manager or colleagues are treating you less favourably, your employer may still be responsible for the discrimination. 

Case Study

Dinesh works at a bar.  He was born in Sri Lanka.  His boss took him off the roster because she couldn’t understand him.   When he spoke to his boss about it, she said “I’m not a racist but I cannot understand you.” The court decided that this was discrimination on the basis of Dinesh’s race and Dinesh was awarded $1,000 in compensation.

Exceptions to workplace discrimination 

There are also exceptions to discrimination laws that affect teenagers and children specifically:

Where age prevents the employee from carrying out the inherent requirements of the position. An example of this is seeking a job where you need to drive but you are not old enough to qualify for a licence. 

An employer is permitted to discriminate against youth in respect of their pay. Youth can be paid a percentage of the pay of adults in the same industry.

In NSW, a person under the age of 21 can be discriminated against in the recruitment process, in being offered a job and the terms and conditions of employment because of their age. 

These are some exceptions when you have a disability: 

Employers are able to discriminate against people that are disabled if the employee would be unable to complete the essential tasks of the job and no reasonable adjustment would help them be able to complete the job. An example of this might be where a paraplegic seeks employment as a tap dance instructor. An employer may recognise that regardless of any assistance they give, the person in the wheelchair will still be unable to use their legs to lead a dance class. 

An employer can discriminate against the disabled if employing the person will result in unjustifiable hardship to the business. 


What can you do about discrimination?

Everyone has a right to a safe workplace without unlawful discrimination.  If you think you have been discriminated against, it’s a good idea to:

1. Talk to your employer about it

The first step is to see if your work has any policies about dealing with discrimination. You can ask your HR representative for a copy.  If it does, it might have information about how to resolve the problem.  If your workplace doesn’t have a discrimination policy, you can talk to your manager or HR representative about what’s happening.

If you’re nervous about talking to your manager or HR representative, you might want to put the complaint in writing, or have a trusted friend sit in the meeting with you to support you.  

2. If you are a member of a union

You can talk to your union representative about what’s going on. They may be able to provide you with some advice or assistance about dealing with the issues.

3. Make a complaint to a government agency

If your employer doesn’t properly investigate your complaint, or you think their decision is unfair, you can make a complaint to a government agency. 

Depending on the type of discrimination or harassment, you may be able to make a complaint to different government agencies.  It’s important to get advice about the different agencies, because there are differences in the complaints processes.  

There are time limits on when you can make a discrimination complaint, that’s why it’s a good idea to get advice as soon as possible so that your complaint is valid. 

Please contact the following organisations to find out who you should make your complaint to:

1 The Australian Human Rights Commission on 1300 656 419 or (02) 9284 9888 or visit their website at:  They can provide information about the various organisations you can complain to and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
2 Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission on (08) 8999 1444 or visit their website at 
Complaints are usually resolved through ‘conciliation’, where you sit down with your employer and an officer from the government agency and have a chat about what happened and what can be done to resolve the complaint; ideally coming to an agreement. This may include an apology or, in some circumstances, compensation. 

But sometimes this process does not lead to an acceptable outcome. You then have the option of taking the complaint to a tribunal or court. However, you should not go to court or a tribunal without getting legal advice and representation first.  It is often available for free!


Discrimination laws for schools, universities or other training organisations aim to make sure that all students are treated the same way and given the same opportunities as other students. You don’t have to put up with discrimination at school. 
What kind of discrimination may occur in school?

A school may treat you unfairly on the basis of a ground of discrimination by:

Refusing to enrol you
Denying you something that they provide to other students
Expelling you or subjecting you to some other negative treatment. 


Not all forms of discrimination are against the law. Sometimes schools can make rules or decisions that discriminate against students.

For example, a school can refuse to enrol you if:

it is a single sex school and you are of the opposite sex;

the school is for students above a certain age and you are not above that age;  

the school only assists students with a certain disability and you do not have that disability; or

it would be unjustifiably hard for the school to provide the necessary resources or services required because of your disability. It is a case of weighing up the pros and cons. For example, if the school can prove that it cannot pay for your adjustment, it can usually claim unjustifiable hardship and refuse to enrol you.

Good to know

Except for race discrimination, private schools are generally exempt from discrimination laws. For example, a religious private school is allowed to exclude people on the basis that they might be homosexual.


What can I do if I have experienced discrimination?

1. Report the discrimination

If you have experienced discrimination, you should:

1 Tell your school principal. You can take a friend, teacher or parent with you if you like.
2 Keep a record of what happened, when it happened, who did it and the names of any other people involved.
3 Ask for a copy of your school’s discrimination policy so you can make sure the school is following the policy.
4 If you don’t think the school is following its policy, you (or your parents) can make a complaint to the school.
5 If you’re not happy with how the school dealt with your complaint, you can take the matter further by complaining to your school’s Regional Director; Northern Territory Department of Education and Training (if it’s a public school); board of governors (if it’s a private school); or the Catholic Education Commission (if it is a Catholic school).
6 If the issue is still not resolved you can make a complaint to either the Australian Human Rights Commission or Northern Territory Anti-discrimination Commission (but you can only complain to one or the other). It doesn’t cost any money to make a complaint. 
There are time limits associated with making a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission or Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission. You should complain within 12 months of the discrimination occurring to the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission, or within 6 months of the discrimination occurring to the Australian Human Rights Commission; otherwise there is a risk that the complaint won’t be investigated.

Complaints are usually resolved through ‘conciliation’, where you sit down with your school and an officer from the Commission or the Board and have a chat about what happened and what the school can do to resolve the complaint; ideally coming to an agreement. 

But sometimes this process does not lead to a good outcome. You then have the option of taking the complaint to a tribunal or court. However, you should not go to court or a tribunal without getting legal advice and representation first. It is often available for free!

You may feel scared about making a complaint, but it is against the law for someone to treat you unfairly or harm you because you made a complaint against them. If that happens, they can be fined or imprisoned. 

It can be difficult to make a complaint. If you need help there are services that can assist you.

2. Tell someone

Discrimination is unacceptable and you may want to speak to your parents or another adult that you trust. If you do not speak to someone, or report what happened, then no one will know what is going on and they can’t help you. We have provided you with a list of important contacts to call at the end of this page if you need to talk to someone else.

3. Where to complain if school doesn’t help



Contact Details

Time limit for making a complaint

Australia (all states and territories)

Australian Human Rights Commission

1300 656 419

6 months

Northern Territory

Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission

1800 813 846

12 months

Discrimination in your sport or club 


It is against the law for a club or association to discriminate against a person based on a characteristic by not allowing them membership or by allowing them membership on certain terms and conditions.  An exception to this is the right to refuse membership to a certain sexes or to those with certain disabilities, if the club or association caters only to a certain sex or the person seeking membership is not disabled.  Clubs that also cater to those specific age groups are allowed to exclude others if the club is mainly intended to benefit people of that age group.


Participating in sports can be hindered by people who exclude people with certain characteristics from playing.  Though discrimination isn’t allowed generally, there are some exceptions with playing competitive sports. 

SEX:  Girls, boys or intersex people cannot be excluded from participating in competitive sports until the age of 12. After the age of 12, they may be excluded if strength, stamina or physique is important in playing the sport. 

Real Life

Three girls, aged 14 and 15, played Australian Rules Football in a local team and were halfway through their season. The club decided that the girls should be excluded from the sport. The girls went to a tribunal to argue that they should be able to still play. The judge decided that the club wouldn’t be discriminating if they exclude girls from playing in under-15’s competitions because strength, stamina and physique of girls was important in that game with that age group but that it wasn’t important in the under-14’s competition.

DISABILITY:  Though it is generally unlawful for someone to exclude people with disabilities from playing sports, if someone’s disability prevents them from reasonably playing the sport, then they can be excluded from playing. For instance, a paraplegic is unlikely to be able to play soccer. 

AGE:  People are free to exclude people of a certain age from playing competitive sports organised for certain age groups. These exclusions prevent people that are 14 years old from playing in under 10’s sport. Age differences in the team may affect the outcome of the game and people’s ability to improve and play.  

If you would like to speak to someone about what is going on at work, you can talk to someone from Headspace or Kids Helpline. They are free and confidential counselling services for people under 25. You can call them or chat online at:
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 FREE and
  • Headspace: 1800 650 890 FREE and
  • If you are over 25 and you’re feeling down because of something that’s happening at work, please contact Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.  


This page was last updated in January 2017.

NCYLC would like to express thanks to the law clerks and volunteers who assisted with the preparation of this material: Hannah Coleman, Liqing Mao, Bethany Rowlands, Ingrid Wright.