What counts as discrimination?


Nadja Hatem
White seashells on the ground with one of the shells in rainbow colors symbolizing discrimination.

It may sound like a strange question, shouldn’t everyone know what discrimination is? But the fact is that there’s a difference between being discriminated against and, for example, treated unfairly. In order for an act to be considered as discriminatory, it has to fulfill a number of requirements. First and foremost, the discrimination has to be based on a person’s sex, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation or age. In addition, there are six forms of discrimination according to Swedish law that the act has to comply with. Below we’ll tell you more about the types of actions that count as discriminatory.

1. Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination regards to situations where one person is treated worse than someone else. You have to be able to compare the situations for it to count as direct discrimination. This type of discrimination can take place in several situations and an individual assessment is therefore always made of each situation. For example, it can be considered discrimination if you aren’t called to a job interview when you have a non-Nordic ethnic origin while a person with Nordic ethnic origin and the same or similar qualifications as you is called. Or if you’re a woman and have a lower salary than your male colleague even though you have the same or similar experience and skills.

2. Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination instead has to do with situations that may seem neutral but which leaves a certain group of people at a disadvantages. Some rules and guidelines can be discriminatory even though everyone has to follow them. It can be considered indirect discrimination if the guideline for a job is that having a driver’s license is a merit even though the job itself can be performed without you having to drive a car. This is because the guideline disadvantages many disabled people who don’t have the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license.

Only businesses covered by the Discrimination Act can be convicted of discrimination. Swedish Systembolaget can, for example, discriminate based on age and not sell alcohol to minors. In this case, you can’t claim that they’re indirectly discriminating against you if they deny you purchases when you can’t show valid identification.

3. Lack of accessibility

Lack of accessibility as discrimination is about how an organization has adapted to people with disabilities or special needs. Organizations are obliged to ensure that people with disabilities can take part in an equivalent way to people without disabilities. There are also other special laws and regulations linked to accessibility to facilitate the disabled and increase accessibility. Examples of such laws are the School Act and the Work Environment Act.

What an organization has to do to be considered accessible depends on several factors. Among other things, the organizations finances and practical conditions are considered before assessing how it should be adapted.

4. Harassment as discrimination

Harassment is about offending another person or a group of people. It can involve derogatory comments, ostracism, gestures and the like. The person subjected to harassment decides whether the action is offensive. The person who’s victimized also has to be clear that the act is offensive for it to count as harassment. A prerequisite for being able to claim that something is harassment is that the person harassing has it made clear to them. However, there are of course situations that are so obviously offensive that the person being harassed doesn’t need to speak up.

5. Sexual harassment

Just as the term indicates, sexual harassment has to do about actions that are offensive and of a sexual nature. Examples of sexual harassment are comments with sexual allusions, touching inappropriately and the like. Even situations where a person claims that they meant well can be considered sexual harassment if they’re of a sexual nature and the person who’s exposed experiences discomfort.

In the case of sexual harassment, it’s also enough that the act itself is harassing for it to count as discrimination. You don’t have to refer to the fact that you’re a woman, disabled or so in order to claim that the act was discriminatory.

6. Instructions to discriminate

It’s also considered discrimination if a person forces someone else to discriminate. For example, store managers can’t tell their employees to deny a certain group of people from entering the store. And restaurant owners can’t tell their staff that they shouldn’t serve a certain group of people. For it to count as instructions to discriminate, there has to be a dependency relationship between the person giving the instruction and the person receiving it.

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