What equality law means for a membership of an association

Membership just for people who share a protected characteristic

An association (except for a political party) may, if it chooses to, restrict its membership to people who share a protected characteristic.

For example:

  • A club for deaf people can restrict membership to people who are deaf and would not need to admit people with other disabilities, such as a blind person.
  • An association of blind people of a particular ethnic origin, such as Chinese, could restrict its membership to people who belong to both these groups.
  • A gardening club for men does not have to admit women as members.

An association for Christian women does not have to admit women of beliefs other than Christianity, nor does it have to admit men whether Christian or of any other belief.

But membership must not be solely on the basis of someone’s colour, for example, an association cannot say it will only accept white people or black people as members, and cannot offer different terms of membership on the basis of colour.

Access by associate members and guests who share the same characteristic

An association (except for a political party) may, if it chooses to, restrict access by associate members and guests to people who share the same protected characteristics as the members of the association. 

For example:

  • A women-only club could, if it chose, refuse to accept guests or associates of the opposite sex. So could a men-only club.
  • A club for transsexual people could, if it chose, to refuse to admit someone’s guest if that person was not a transsexual person.
  • A club for gay men does not have to accept straight men or straight women or lesbians as associate members or guests.

Pregnant women’s health and safety

An association (except for a political party) may restrict the terms of membership on grounds of health and safety for a member, guest or associate who is pregnant. It may be lawful to restrict a woman’s access to a benefit or service in the short term, if it is reasonable to believe that giving access would create a risk to her health or safety and the association would take similar measures in respect of persons whose health and safety might be at risk because of other physical conditions. 

For example:

A woman who is a member of a hang-gliding club is heavily pregnant. The club can restrict her access to the full activities of the club until after she has given birth as it is reasonable to believe that some activities would create a risk to her health or safety, and the club would do the same thing in relation to members with different physical conditions. If the woman is not yet a member but wants to join, the club must not refuse her membership altogether just because of health and safety concerns, but it could restrict her activities whilst she was pregnant.

When an association cannot take protected characteristics into account in deciding membership or terms of membership

Other than if it has been set up specifically for people who share a protected characteristic, an association cannot refuse membership to a potential member or grant it on less favourable terms because of a protected characteristic.

For example:

A men’s amateur rugby club can refuse women who apply to join but it cannot reject men because of their race or their sexual orientation.

In addition, an association cannot offer membership terms, benefits and services that are directly discriminatory or indirectly discriminatory. 

For example:

A tennis club cannot charge a woman a higher joining fee than a man even if it has a reason for this, such as saying that women are likely to use the facilities more often. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of sex. A better approach would be to charge members different rates according to when or how much they use the facilities.

If the club does decide to set up a cheaper class of membership for people who use the club less often, then both forms of membership must be open to everyone on the same terms. It would not be acceptable to have one type of membership for women and a different, lesser type of membership for men, or the other way round.

Positive action

However, it may be possible for an association to target people with a particular protected characteristic through positive action if it can show that they have a different need or a track record of disadvantage or low participation in its activities. This could include, for example, offering reduced rate membership if this would be a proportionate step to take. An association which is thinking about taking positive action needs to go through a number of steps to decide whether it is needed and what sort of action to take. Read more about positive action in our glossary.

Treating disabled people better than non-disabled people

In addition, equality law allows you to treat disabled people better or more favourably than non-disabled people without this being unlawful discrimination against non-disabled people. The aim of the law in allowing this is to remove barriers that disabled people would otherwise face to accessing services.

For example:

A club gives disabled people a discount on their membership.

More information

Last Updated: 16 Apr 2014