Gender and Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

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Gender discrimination, sometimes referred to as sex-based discrimination or sexual discrimination, is the unequal treatment of someone based on her (or his) sex. A civil rights violation, it's illegal in the workplace when it affects the "terms or conditions of employment." It's addressed by federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, as well as other legislation.

Sexual Harassment 

Sexual harassment falls under the umbrella of gender discrimination. A woman might be entitled to the same perks, advancements, pay, and other benefits as their male counterpart according to company policy, but behavior toward her in the workplace is untenable and it's related to her gender.

I am sure you're familiar with the 2017 #MeToo movement birthed by sexual harassment claims made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein when actress Ashley Judd bravely gave her story to major news outlets. Years earlier, Weinstein had threatened Judd if she didn't agree to a sexual act.

Hollywood's examples are extreme but this would be the case if Judd were subjected to unwelcome touching or even offensive jokes aimed at her sex or sexual identity. And while one joke might be OK, repeated jokes on a daily or frequent basis constitute harassment. Harassment can also involve promises of advancement in exchange for sexual favors.

The Wide Girth of Sexual Harassment

The woman's harasser does not necessarily have to be a male. Women can be just as guilty of sexual harassment toward other women. Likewise, the harasser does not necessarily have to be the woman's boss or supervisor. It's still harassment if a coworker or client is the source of the behavior and the company's management does nothing to put a stop to it.

What Constitutes Discrimination 

The proverbial "glass ceiling" is a classic example of workplace gender discrimination–the unwritten code that women cannot hold certain senior positions and are prevented from advancing beyond a certain point because of gender despite their skills, talents, and qualifications.

Promotional Bias 

The glass ceiling situation falls under the category of promotional basis. There are various reasons for this basis; having children being the main one. The glass ceiling movement, birthed in the late 1900s, was supposed to shatter the barrier (i.e., ceiling) that prevented women from moving up the corporate ladder. And, although women have come a long way, they're not there yet. 

In 1990 there were six women on the Fortune 500 list of CEOs. In 2017 there were 32 women. More women, but not enough, considering we're talking about 500 CEOs. 

But sexual discrimination goes further than that CEOship. A man and woman might hold the exact same position and perform the same duties within a company, but the job title is different. The man may also be paid more, or he might be entitled to raises or promotions on a different schedule, and at a faster pace, than the woman.

Interview Questions

The interview process should be similar (if not the same) for both genders, but women are frequently expected to field different types of questions. Women are often asked if they have children or if they intend to have children.

These types of family questions are illegal, and more importantly, have no bearing on a person’s ability to do a job well. However, many employers predicate hiring potential employees on the notion that they might need to utilize maternity leave.  Employers need to consider that fathers (whether straight or gay) may need to take paternity leave. Neither gender should be asked the question.

Terminations

All too often, terminations are handled with gender bias. It can be especially prevalent in male-dominated industries (such as manufacturing) where sexual harassment is not taken seriously. There are cases of women who have complained about gender bias and found themselves unemployed.

A female engineer at luxury car manufacturer Tesla, AJ Vandermeyden, accused the manufacturer of ignoring her complaints of sexual harassment and paying her less than her male counterparts. Then, she was fired in what her lawyer alleged was an act of retaliation. Vandermeyden, who went public, also claimed she was taunted and catcalled by male employees and that Tesla failed to address her complaints about the harassment, unequal pay, and discrimination. This is just one example. Most people aren't as brave as Vandermeyden was to speak up for fear of a blemished work record and/or a bad reputation in their industry.

How to Report Discrimination

If you or someone you know is a victim of gender discrimination in the workplace (male, female, bi, or trans) first, tell your company's human resources department. Or, speak with your supervisor if your company doesn't have a human resources department.

If the situation persists, you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and file a charge of discrimination—a first step before you resort to suing your employer. But, before you sue, meet with an attorney to determine what the requirements are where you work. You may have as little as six months to file a charge and the EEOC typically must investigate your complaint first before you're permitted to take other civil action.