Equality law - Gyms, health clubs and sporting activity providers

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Any organisation providing a service

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • England flag icon


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    • Scotland flag icon


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    • Wales flag icon


Equality law applies to any business that provides goods, facilities or services to members of the public.

This includes sport and leisure related services, such as:

  • leisure centres
  • swimming pools
  • tennis clubs and tennis courts
  • golf clubs
  • rugby, cricket and football clubs
  • ice rinks
  • riding schools and equestrian centres
  • gyms
  • health and fitness clubs
  • rowing and sailing clubs
  • adventure centres
  • sporting venues.

It doesn't matter whether the service is free, for example, free swimming sessions in a swimming pool run on behalf of a local authority, or whether it must be paid for - it will still be covered by equality law.

Even though you may describe yourself as a 'club' (and many clubs are, in equality law, associations), you are really a service provider if you are offering a service to any member of the public, for example, by:

  • charging them an entry fee to watch an activity
  • allowing anyone to join your leisure club provided they pay for the service

even if the charge is described as a membership fee or if the service is free. If, for example, you allow a person to have a free trial session, you are still providing them with a service.

If you are not sure whether you are a service provider or an association, then ask yourself:

  • Do you have more than 25 members and is membership regulated by rules - for example, do all the members have to decide who becomes a new member?

If the answer to this is 'yes', then you should read the guide on associations instead.

It is possible to be both an association and a service provider.

For example:

A private golf club with rules regulating membership will be an association when it is dealing with its members and their guests, but a service provider if it opens its golf course, café and shop to members of the public on certain days of the week or when spectators attend to watch club competitions. If someone does not have to be a club member to take part in a competition, then the golf club is also providing competitors with a service.

If you are both an association and a service provider, the question you need to think about is whether your services are provided to the public or to your members, associate members and their guests or people who want to become members or guests.

If it is the public, then this is the right guide for you to read.

If it is your members or their guests or people who want to become members or guests, you should read the guide on associations instead.

Particular issues for you to think about are:

  • whether, if you want to, you can provide separate services for men and women or a service for only men or only women
  • access to changing rooms and other facilities
  • what you say about what people can or must wear to take part in your activities
  • whether you can put conditions on who takes part in your activities, based on people's protected characteristics.

If you want to provide separate services for men and women or a single-sex service for men or women only, then you need to be able to objectively justify providing your service in this way. You must meet other conditions as well, such as showing that a joint service would be less effective, or that men's needs and women's needs are different. Read more about exceptions.

For example:

A gym restricts access to its small sauna to men at some times and women at other times. Each sex has access to a mixture of daytime and evening use. At the times when the opposite sex is excluded, the gym is providing a single-sex service for the sex which is allowed to use the sauna. The gym believes the restriction is objectively justified and can also show that the sauna may be used by more than one person and a woman might object to the presence of a man (or vice versa). It is likely that the provision of the service in this way will come within the exception.

You can read more about this in the Core guidance section.

You may need to make reasonable adjustments to make sure that disabled people are able to change in the same privacy and comfort as non-disabled people.

For example:

The changing facilities in a women-only gym are located in a room that is only accessible by stairs. The gym owner suggests to disabled users of the gym with mobility impairments that they can change in a corner of the gym itself. This is unlikely to be a reasonable alternative method of making the service available, since it may significantly infringe upon people's dignity.

However, providing an alternative private room to change in may be a reasonable adjustment.

You must also avoid discriminating against transsexual people. Treat a transsexual person as belonging to the gender they identify with (as opposed to the physical sex they were born with) unless you can objectively justify treating them differently.

For example:

A clothes shop has separate changing areas for men and for women with individual cubicles. The shop concludes it would not be appropriate or necessary to exclude a transsexual woman from the female changing room as the privacy and decency of all users can be assured by the provision of the separate cubicles.

One factor all shops should consider is, where a transsexual person is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from someone of the gender they identify with, they should normally be treated according to their gender identity unless there are strong reasons not to do so.

Obviously, sometimes you will require specialist or safety clothing or equipment to be worn by participants in your activities. If you make this a condition of participating in your activities, and a person says that they cannot comply with the condition because of a protected characteristic, and can show that the condition has a disproportionate impact on people who share that characteristic, you will need to objectively justify the condition you have put in place.

For example:

A riding stables says that all riders must wear a riding hat or helmet which meets a particular safety standard. This is because the approved helmet protects riders from serious head injury in the event of a fall. The riding stable refuses to exempt someone who usually keeps their head covered with a particular type of head covering for religious reasons. Provided the stables can objectively justify the refusal, this will not be unlawful indirect discrimination because of religion or belief, even though the requirement has a worse impact on the individual and others who share their protected characteristic.

If it is necessary to change what a disabled person wears to take part in your activities, you need to consider whether making this change amounts to a reasonable adjustment. You can read more about reasonable adjustments on our website.

  • Health and safety and disabled people: Make sure that any action taken in relation to health or safety is proportionate to the risk. Disabled people are entitled to make the same choices and to take the same risks within the same limits as other people. Health and safety law does not require you as a service provider to remove all conceivable risk, but to ensure that risk is properly appreciated, understood and managed. Don't make assumptions; instead, assess the person’s situation, and consider reasonable adjustments to reduce any risks, your duty not to discriminate and, where appropriate, the disabled person's own views. There must be a balance between protecting against the risk and restricting disabled people from access to services.
  • Health and safety and pregnancy: A service provider can refuse to provide a service to a pregnant woman, or set conditions on the service, because they reasonably believe that providing the service in the usual way would create a risk to the woman's health or safety, and they would do the same thing in relation to a person with a different physical condition.

For example:

  • A gym restricts pregnant women's access to its steam room because it has advice from its trade association that pregnant women may be at risk from the high temperatures. It also restricts access to the steam room for people with high blood pressure and heart conditions. This is likely to come within the exception.
  • Separate sporting competitions: Separate sporting competitions can be organised for men and women where:
    • physical strength, stamina or physique are major factors in determining success or failure, and
    • one sex is generally at a disadvantage in comparison with the other.

Separate competition for girls and boys may or may not be allowed, depending on the age and stage of development of the children who will be competing. At some ages and in some sports, it is not possible to say that boys and girls have significant differences of physical strength or stamina or that one sex is at a disadvantage in comparison with the other. Only if it is possible to say this will separate competitions be allowed.

  • You must not restrict the participation of a transsexual person in such competitions unless this is strictly necessary to uphold fair or safe competition, but not otherwise. In other words, treat a transsexual person as belonging to the gender they identify with (as opposed to the physical sex they were born with) unless there is evidence that they have an unfair advantage or there would be a risk to the safety of competitors which might occur in some close contact sports.

Sports teams can continue to select on the basis of nationality, place of birth or residence if the competitor or team is representing a country, place, area or related association or because of the rules of the competition.

Last updated: 13 Jul 2020

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

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Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.