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Marital status discrimination

It’s hard to believe that, only a few decades ago, women were expected to leave their jobs after they married. In fact, the Equal Opportunity Act was specifically created to prevent that kind of discrimination. These days, we know that everyone deserves to be treated fairly regardless of whether they are in a relationship – married or otherwise. The law continues to protect you from discrimination because of your marital status.

A lesbian couple sit on a swing chair. One of women has her arm around the other.

Photo by Felipe Balduino from Pexels

What is marital status discrimination?

Marital status discrimination is when someone treats you unfairly, including bullying you, because of your marital status or your assumed marital status.

Marital status refers to whether you are:

  • single
  • married
  • divorced, widowed, separated
  • in a domestic partnership
  • in a de facto relationship

Examples of marital status discrimination include

  • A landlord refusing to rent to domestic partners because they want a married couple in their property.
  • A jockey club refusing to grant a trainer’s licence to someone because her husband had been convicted of betting fraud in the past, and the club thinks he will have a ‘corrupting influence’ on her.
  • A dance studio offering tango lessons only to people who are single.

How does the law protect me?

Discrimination is against the law if it happens in an area of public life such as:

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, duty holders (such as employers, schools, and goods and service providers) have a positive duty to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation in these areas, as far as possible.

It is also against the law to victimise a person, which means treat them badly, because they have made complaint about discrimination or helped someone else make a complaint.

You can make a complaint

Get help from us.

You can make a complaint to us if you think you have experienced:

If you wish, someone else can make a complaint for you. Find out how we help people resolve complaints.

We can also give you information about your rights.

Marital status discrimination at work

Two thirds of all marital status discrimination complaints that come to us are work related (66% in 2020-21).

While a person is responsible for their own unlawful behaviour, employers can also be held responsible.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, employers have a positive duty to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as far as possible.

Victoria is unique in having a positive duty, which creates an opportunity to prevent unlawful behaviour. It helps organisations put a healthy workplace culture in place, just as occupational health and safety laws require employers to take appropriate steps to ensure injuries don’t occur.

To ensure they are complying with the positive duty, organisations should also put measures in place to ensure that complaints are responded to swiftly and appropriately when they do arise.

The positive duty applies to employers of all sizes, regardless of whether they are a major company or a small cafe, and covers all types of workers:

  • full-time, part-time and casual employees
  • agents and contract workers
  • trainees and apprentices.

It applies to all stages of employment, including:

Examples of marital status discrimination in the workplace include:

  • A manager not considering a woman for promotion once she is married because they think she’ll be focused on starting a family rather than on her career
  • A workplace offering bonuses to married staff, but not single staff members
  • A company offering married employees working in remote locations an allowance and leave to visit their families, but not employees who are single or in de facto relationships.

Are there any exceptions to the law?

There are some exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act that mean it’s not against the law to discriminate in particular circumstances. For example, discrimination is not against the law if there is a real risk to someone’s health, safety or property.

Find out more about exceptions.

My human rights under the Charter

Every Victorian has the right to equal and effective protection against discrimination, and to enjoy their human rights without discrimination.

Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities contains 20 basic rights that promote and protect the values of freedom, respect, equality, and dignity.

The Victorian Government, local councils and other public authorities must always consider Charter rights, including the right to equality, when they create laws, develop policies and deliver their services.

Find out more about your human rights under the Charter and what to do if you think they have been breached.

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The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission acknowledges that we work on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We also work remotely and serve communities on the lands of other Traditional Custodians.

We pay our respects to their Elders past and present.