About sex discrimination

This page explains what sex discrimination is, in what situations the law protects you from being discriminated against because of your gender in housing situations.

Where do my rights come from?

The most important law which protects you from sex discrimination is the Equality Act 2010. This replaced the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

What is sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination occurs if a woman is treated less favourably than a man, or vice versa.

There are four main types of sex discrimination:

  • direct,

  • indirect,

  • victimisation and

  • sexual harassment.

What is direct sex discrimination?

Direct discrimination takes place if you are treated less favourably than someone else because of your sex. For example, direct sex discrimination occurs if:

  • you are refused a service because of your sex (for example, if a landlord refuses to let a property to you because you're a woman)

  • you are offered a lower standard of service because of your sex (for example, if a mortgage lender insists that female applicants have guarantors for their loans, but don't ask male applicants to do this).

What is indirect sex discrimination?

Indirect discrimination is when a service provider (for example, a landlord or the council) introduces a requirement or condition that applies equally to both sexes but which puts one sex at a disadvantage because they would find it harder to comply with the rule or condition, without a suitable justification. For example, if a mortgage lender has a policy of refusing to give mortgages to people who work part-time, this would exclude more women than men, as more women work part-time.

What is victimisation?

If you are treated less favourably because you have complained about sex discrimination or have helped another person complain, this is victimisation, which is also against the law. For example, you may be in the process of taking someone to court for sex discrimination, or have given evidence in court to back up another person's case.

What is sexual harassment?

If you are insulted, molested, abused or attacked because of your sex, this is sexual harassment. There are different ways of dealing with sexual harassment, depending on the situation. Read the page on sexual harassment to find out more.

In what situations does the law protect me?

You are protected from sex discrimination:

  • at work, or when applying for a job

  • at school, college or university

  • when renting or buying a home

  • when you buy goods or use services provided by, for example:

    • shops

    • pubs, restaurants and nightclubs

    • banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions

    • cinemas, theatres and leisure centres

    • public transport, travel agents and airlines

    • builders, plumbers and other tradespeople

    • doctors, hospitals and other health providers.

This information is mainly concerned with your rights when buying or renting a home - for more information on your rights at work, visit the Direct.gov website.

How does this affect my housing rights?

Under the Equality Act it's illegal for a landlord, letting agent, estate agent, council or housing association to discriminate against you because of your sex. This includes the letting and selling of houses, flats, mobile homes, business premises, hotels and holiday accommodation and agricultural land. These laws also apply to anyone who is subletting their home or taking in a lodger, subject to some exemptions.

As the law covers services provided by financial institutions, it's also illegal for mortgage lenders to discriminate between men and women.

This means that it's likely that you're protected in the following situations.

Renting a home

If you're renting accommodation, sex discrimination may occur if:

  • won't allow you to view a property for rent because you're pregnant

  • will only let a property to one particular sex

  • restricts your use of facilities that other tenants of the opposite sex have full access to (such as parking or a communal garden)

  • tries to evict you in circumstances where they would not evict someone of the opposite sex

  • subjects you to sexual harassment (including anyone who works for them)

  • a council refuses to accept a homeless application from you because of your sex or gender

  • a council or housing association refuses to put your name down on their housing waiting list or puts you lower down the list than other people of the opposite sex who are in the same situation

  • a provider of housing for elderly people allows women to move in when they're 60 but requires men to wait until they're 65

Buying a home

If you're buying a home, discrimination may occur if:

  • an estate agent or owner won't let you look around a property that's up for sale or refuses your offer on a property because they don't want to sell to a woman

  • a mortgage lender refuses to accept a woman's salary as the basis for a mortgage offer, and insists on using her husband or partner's salary instead

  • a mortgage lender sets more conditions for female applicants, such as insisting on a guarantor

  • a mortgage lender has a policy of only offering mortgages to people who work full-time.

Are there any exceptions?

There are some housing situations which aren't covered by anti-discrimination law.

Communal accommodation

If the accommodation on offer is communal (for example, if it has shared dormitories or washing facilities) it can be restricted to one sex only. So, for example, a hostel may be single sex, or may have separate dormitories for men and women. In this case, the hostel can lawfully refuse a man a place if all the male dormitories are full.

Accommodation provided by charities or voluntary organisations

Accommodation provided by charities or voluntary organisations can be restricted to one sex if the purpose of the organisation is to help people of that particular sex. Examples include women's refuges or hostels for homeless men.

Hospital or care home accommodation

Hospital accommodation or accommodation for people who require special care, supervision or attention can also be lawfully restricted to either sex.

Homeowners taking in a lodger

Homeowners can choose whether to let their homes to men or women if:

  • they live in the property as well (and, for example, are letting out a room to a lodger) and

  • they don't use an agent to let the property and

  • they don't advertise the property for rent.

However, it's still against the law for the owner to discriminate against a tenant because of their gender once they're living on the property, for example by refusing them access to facilities other tenants can use, or evicting them in circumstances where they would not evict someone of the opposite sex.

Resident landlords

Exceptions also apply if:

  • the person letting or subletting the property also lives there, or

  • a near relative of the person letting the home lives there (a near relative can be a wife or husband, civil partner, parent, child, grandparent or grandchild, or brother or sister, including, for example, half-sister, step-sister and sister-in-law), and

  • they share accommodation with their tenants (for example, a living room or kitchen - shared storage space doesn't count), and

  • the home is classed as a 'small premises' – this means that in addition to the person letting the property and their family, there are no more than:

    • two other households living there, or

    • six unrelated people living there

So, for example, three female students sharing a flat are within their rights to advertise for a fourth female flatmate, while a landlord letting out eight separate bedsits would not be able to discriminate between male and female tenants.

Does the law protect me if I'm pregnant?

If a landlord, mortgage lender or other service provider discriminates against you because you are pregnant, this is sex discrimination, and you can take action against them under the Equality Act.

What can I do about sex discrimination?

If you think that a landlord, council, mortgage lender or other service provider has discriminated against you, you can take action against them. Read the page on dealing with sex discrimination to find out more.

If you need to talk to someone, we’ll do our best to help. Get Help

Last updated: 29 December 2014

Housing laws differ between Scotland and England.

This content applies to Scotland only.

Get advice if you're in England