There are many different forms of discrimination, but one of the more talked about forms is gender discrimination. Especially in the current news cycle with the #MeToo movement, gender discrimination and harassment have been placed under a massive spotlight. Victims are no longer willing to stay silent about their experiences, and it’s emboldened other victims to feel more comfortable about seeking justice.
However, just like any other social movement, the #MeToo movement will help raise awareness, but it won’t make the behavior disappear for good. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination is a deeply embedded problem in our society, and bringing awareness to the issue is only the first step in recovery.
So how can you identify and combat gender discrimination in your workplace? How many different forms of gender discrimination are there, and how can they affect victims? If you’re a victim, how can you report the issue and seek justice? Do any of these protections extend to transgender individuals or lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals?
The legal waters surrounding gender discrimination can be murky, so it’s best to build up your knowledge so you can combat the problem head on. Let’s look at the many different types and examples of gender discrimination, and what you can do about it.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is Gender Discrimination?
- 2 Examples of Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
- 3 The Glass Ceiling
- 4 How to Prove Gender or Sex Discrimination
What is Gender Discrimination?
Gender or sex discrimination is legally defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as the unfavorable treatment of someone (employee or applicant to a job) due to their gender. There are many different forms of gender discrimination, all of which can vary in severity.
Additionally, the discrimination can be from anyone: male or female, someone the same gender as you, coworkers, managers/supervisors, and people who contract with your company (but aren’t actual employees).
Sex and Gender Discrimination
The laws that protect you from gender discrimination are laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is the same congressional act that provides protections against discrimination based on race, religion, nationality, and color.
There is also the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in wages between men and women who work within the same industry, the same job position, and have equal skill and responsibilities.
Gender discrimination can often come in the form of sexual harassment and unwanted requests for sexual favors. However, gender discrimination does not always have to be so severe. It can also be in the form of negative comments about stereotypes of men or women. For example, it would be illegal to continually make negative comments about women, even if the person making those comments was not directing it towards a female employee.
However, it’s important to note that offhand comments or single small incidents are not constituted as harassment or discrimination by the EEOC. Harassment is defined by the EEOC as: “when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
Gender Identity Discrimination
Discrimination based on any LGBTQIA identity can also be protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, depending on interpretation by the EEOC. The EEOC provides some examples on their website of gender discrimination cases that have happened in the past based on LGBTQIA status.
Currently, the terms “sexual preference and gender identity” are not directly listed as protected status by the Title VII. However, a judge or the EEOC could interpret the law to read so that any form of gender discrimination is unlawful — even if it affects a transgender woman or a gay man, for example. Currently, the EEOC states that their organization interprets the law in favor of LGBTQIA individuals who have experienced gender discrimination, however that could very easily change depending on the administration or government support.
Luckily for now, there are some strong cases to suggest that individuals who are LGBTQIA would have the support of the federal EEOC when their case is investigated. Additionally, many states (about 20 as of 2018) have written protections for “gender identity and sexual preference” into their state’s civil rights act. This means on a state-level, LGBTQIA individuals could be protected from workplace discrimination (as well as other forms of discrimination) based on their protected status.
Examples of Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
There are many different types of gender discrimination in the workplace, and some of the most common examples can be found below. However, it’s important to note that no matter what your situation may be (and it could be it’s not listed below), it will be worthwhile to seek legal guidance on the matter. Qualified lawyers, as well as counselors with the EEOC, can provide you with the legal knowledge you need to find justice for the discrimination you’ve faced.
Below are some examples of sex or gender discrimination:
Despite the existence of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, gender-based pay discrimination is still fairly common. The gender-pay gap is defined as the difference in pay that women make compared to men, despite working within the same field, with the same responsibilities, and with the same amount of skill and experience. Currently, the national average for pay inequality is 80 percent — which means women are paid 80 percent of what a man is paid for the same amount of work in the same position.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) provides a more detailed break down of the pay inequality happening across the nation, as well as state to state. It should also be noted that women of color often make even less (on average) than white women or white men — 63 percent for black women and 54 percent for Hispanic women compared to a man’s salary in the same position. Other factors could also lead to an increased difference in pay, including age, disability status, and history with pregnancy or family leave.
If you believe you’re being paid less than your male coworkers, then it could be worth your time to negotiate a raise or pay increase with your employer. However, that’s a lot easier said than done, and often times women can be seen in a negative light for speaking up. Luckily, you have the support of the EEOC if you are unable to successfully negotiate a raise.
Speak with an EEOC counselor from your local office if you believe you are the victim of unequal pay or any other form of gender discrimination.
Gender discrimination can also happen to those that don’t work with the company but who are applying to a position within the company. Examples of gender discrimination in an interview include:
- Questions about your children, or if you plan on having any children (Maternity bias): Gender bias could come through in these scenarios because there is an assumption that your children being sick will be an issue, or you seeking maternity leave could be seen as an issue. However, this is gender-based discrimination, and these questions have no basis within a business interview.
- Confirmation bias: Confirmation bias is defined as when someone will make a predetermined opinion, and then will double down on that opinion when new information comes to light. For example, an interviewer might have a predetermined opinion about female workers, and during the interview they may ask leading questions that help cement that untrue belief based on the answers given. If you feel an interviewer is biased and is asking biased questions about your gender, then you could have a case with the EEOC for gender discrimination.
- Affinity bias: This sort of bias is defined as a preference for like-minded and similar people — “people like me.” So for example, if a tech company is made up of mostly men, and the interviewer is a man as well, then there could be a preference for men due to affinity bias. Additionally, this could create an unfair disadvantage for any female applicants, despite their qualifications or education.
Diminished responsibility simply means that male and female employees are not given the same responsibilities due to their gender. A couple examples might be:
- A woman working in a shipping warehouse is discouraged for lifting the boxes over 40 pounds, even though she is more than capable. The supervisor simply believes that women are not as strong as men, and thus tells her to ask a male coworker to lift the heavier boxes for her.
- A company has both a male and female secretary, but the female secretary is constantly asked to run errands for the male executives. The male secretary is not asked the same “favors” and is allowed to remain at his desk throughout the day.
- A male employee in a pizza restaurant is asked to work in the back on dishes, despite being willing and eager to work on pizza orders. When he asks his manager if he can help make pizzas, the manager states that “men aren’t great cooks.”
Restrooms and Accomodations
Another form of gender discrimination could come from the accommodations on site for employees — especially restrooms. Some examples include:
- The restrooms on site are single-occupancy, any-gender (meaning used by both men and women), but are rarely cleaned. The women feel extremely uncomfortable using the restrooms, and are forced to walk to a neighboring building to find a clean and comfortable place to use the restroom. When a woman brings up the issue to her boss, he offers that she clean the restrooms herself.
- The restrooms on site are gendered (meaning a male and a female restroom), but the male restroom is near the office, while the nearest female restroom is on the other side of the building. Although the building is compliant with local laws, the location of the restroom disproportionately effects female employees.
- A transgender woman is constantly harassed for using the female employee restroom, but it is her only option on that floor of the building. Instead of facing harassment, she decides to start using the single-occupancy restroom that is two floors down from the office, and is constantly berated by her boss for taking long restroom breaks. The lack of accommodations (as well as the targeted harassment from her coworkers) means she is disproportionately affected compared to her fellow employees. This could also be the experience of a gender non-conforming individual who is forced to use a single-occupancy restroom.
Positions, Promotions, and Roles
This sort of discrimination is often based on negative stereotypes about each gender. For example, men might be seen as stronger and less emotionally intelligent, whereas women are seen as weaker but more emotionally intelligent. This could lead to companies missing out on the best applicant for a job, or could result in qualified employees missing out on a promotion. Stereotypes don’t just hurt the individual, they hurt the business as well.
Some common examples might include:
- A certified male teacher is looking for a job with an elementary school, but is struggling to get hired. When he’s interviewed by one principle, she mentions that male teachers are often “more aggressive” towards their students, and less emotionally supportive. The male teacher is unable to land a position with the school district, and this level of bias is discriminatory.
- A female applicant is eager to apply to a tech company as their new data analyst, but during the interview, the hiring manager states they’re also hiring for a secretary position, and they think she would be a great fit. Despite her qualifications to be a data analyst, the hiring manager has exposed their bias that women are “only great in secretary roles.”
- An experienced and veteran female employee applies for a new supervisor or management role, but is passed up for a younger male who has less experience with the company. When she asks what she could do to improve, the hiring manager states that she is “too intimidating and bossy” and less technologically minded, and thus would make a bad supervisor. However, these comments expose bias against women on behalf of the hiring manager.
Discrimination based on pregnancy status or medical conditions related to pregnancy have their own federal protections. However, they can easily cross over with gender discrimination since women and those with a uterus are disproportionately affected.
Some examples of pregnancy discrimination could include:
- A female applicant is asked during an interview if she intends to have children. The question is not at all related to her skills or abilities, and she worries that saying “yes” might result in the company passing her over for the job because they will assume that she will need maternity leave if she decides to have children.
- A pregnant employee is constantly touched on the stomach by their coworkers due to the pregnancy, and they feel uncomfortable by the unwanted attention. They could have a case for sexual harassment due to their pregnancy.
Termination (or any other adverse employment decision) due to a harassment or discrimination complaint is illegal retaliation according to the EEOC. This means if an employee brings a discrimination complaint to HR, but is fired for doing so, the employer is immediately held liable for the discrimination by the EEOC.
Examples of unlawful termination include:
- A female employee finds out she makes less than her male counterparts, despite working with the company for a longer period of time. When she brings up this concern to her boss she is called “ungrateful” and let go from the company for asking for more money.
- A female employee experiences serious sexual harassment from her boss and considers going to HR to report the issue. However, before she has the opportunity to file a complaint, her boss fires her for not following through on an illegal sexual favor that he requested.
Lastly, one of the most talked about and severe forms of gender discrimination is that of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this still happens fairly regularly to women in male-dominated fields. This can come in the form of unwelcome comments about someone’s gender, or can be even more severe cases of a sexual nature.
Some common examples of sexual harassment include:
- Quid Pro Quo: This scenario is also known as “this for that,” and typically means a sexual favor is requested in exchange for a raise or otherwise beneficial employment opportunity. However, any request for a sexual favor is extremely illegal, no matter what the benefit may be to the employee. Traditionally the request comes from an authority figure, and it can be both blunt or suggestive in nature.
- Hostile work environment: Although single comments or slights are not prohibited by the EEOC, continual harassment is prohibited when it leads to a hostile or dangerous work environment. This might be in the form of constant negative comments about women, unwanted touching, or more serious offenses such as sexual assault that result in the employee feeling threatened or traumatized.
The Glass Ceiling
A common phrase you might hear in relation to gender discrimination is “the glass ceiling.” This term is defined as: “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.”
In essence, this term relates to the social constructs within our society that have given unfair advantage to straight men of (white) European descent. Despite any laws that might prohibit favoritism or discrimination against minority groups and women, it still happens fairly regularly. Our modern culture is built around centuries of white men being in power, and thus even our modern times reflect some of those outdated stereotypes or beliefs that have persisted over the years about women, people of color, and people with disabilities. The narrative of our culture has always favored those in power, and until that power structure is dismantled it will continue to influence our society.
Although awareness about these issues has risen in recent years, there are still many people who struggle to break that metaphorical glass ceiling for a multitude of reasons — normally related to a lack of privilege.
Perhaps they were born in a poor, predominantly black community that had limited access to educational opportunities and was heavily policed. This could have resulted in them not being able to attend a prestigious college, or find a suitable job that matched their skillset and paid them a livable wage.
For others, it might be a lack of support from parents or teachers to pursue the subjects that really interested them (this is common with young girls who are interested in science, engineering, or mathematics).
There will always be shining examples of people that managed to break that glass ceiling, but that certainly doesn’t mean it has disappeared for everyone. No matter what the barriers might have been, the glass ceiling still persists for many people. Unfortunately, it will continue to exist until equity — not just equality — is granted to every disadvantaged group.
Companies should take into consideration what they can do to improve the work environment for all their employees, and to prevent the glass ceiling from stopping the progression of their female or minority employees. Here are some steps to take:
- During hiring: Hiring managers should prioritize gender-neutral interview questions, so as not to give a disadvantage to female employees. Additionally, they should enforce non discriminatory practices, and should be up-to-date on issues affecting women and minorities within their industry. If bias becomes apparent, then hiring managers should excuse themselves from interviews, partake in diversity programs to educate themselves, or should reconsider their position of influence within the company.
- During employment: Managers and supervisors should work to monitor and promote their female and minority employees — ensuring that their work is of equal caliber, rewarding excellence, and promoting them to positions that match their quality of work, skills, and qualifications. Additionally, the business should promote mentorship (which has been shown to improve morale and increase support) for female and minority employees with other employees of the same identity that can understand, empathize, and validate their struggles while also lifting them up. Managers should also make sure that they do not harbor any bias, and should work to continually monitor their personal beliefs so as not to affect the treatment of their employees.
How to Prove Gender or Sex Discrimination
If you believe you are the victim of gender or sex discrimination, there are a few things you should do before and while filing a complaint. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you prove the discrimination you’ve experienced. Remember that direct evidence can be a useful tool for proving bias, but circumstantial evidence can also be used to build your case.
- Take Notes: The most important step is to take regular notes of what you’ve experienced. Include in the notes who was present, who harassed you, what was said, the date/time/location of the incident, and how it affected your work flow for the day (did you go home, were you distracted or uncomfortable, etc). Take a note of each incident — and if you have any previous incidents to report, consider making notes about what you remember happening. Remember, the EEOC recommends filing a complaint as soon as possible, and the EEOC will only accept complaints if the incident happened within the last 180 days.
- File a complaint with the company: Each business will have their own policy for filing a complaint, so be sure to check your employee manual for the proper protocol. If nothing is mentioned, then go directly to your HR department or direct manager to explain your concerns. If your manager is responsible for the harassment you’ve received, then go to their direct manager or explain your situation to HR. Once you’ve shown them your notes and explained your situation, they may have you fill out an official complaint, or they may simply ask you to put your report into writing. Once they’ve been made aware of the harassment, is it the business’ responsibility to address the issue, take reasonable care to prevent it from continuing, and correct the discrimination.
- File a complaint with the EEOC: Even if you have filed a complaint with your company, you still have the legal right to file a formal complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the last incident. The purpose of filing with the EEOC is to open an investigation into the treatment you received so that you can be awarded damages (financial compensation) or simply find justice for your treatment. Keep in mind that the company will not be held liable if you did not take reasonable care to bring awareness to the issue, such as filing a formal complaint with HR (unless you were terminated from the job before you could report it). There are a few reasons why you might want to file a complaint with the EEOC:
- You were unlawfully terminated, or otherwise received some sort of retaliation for reporting harassment. You may also have applied for a job but were not considered due to your gender or protected class.
- You believe the business did not put an end to the harassment and thus are requesting the EEOC to investigate your complaint.
- You entered into a private-arbitration clause with the company (this is common with large companies that want to keep the harassment out of the public eye and the court system), but feel that the private-arbitration was insufficient or was created to silence you as a victim.
- Wait to hear back from the EEOC: There are a few things that the EEOC might recommend, including:
- Mediation between you and the business to agree to a settlement.
- They may find your claim worthy of a lawsuit or may not be able to come to a conclusion (and thus want to leave it to the court’s decision), and will thus mail you a “Notice of Right to Sue” which grants you 90 days to file a lawsuit in public court.
- They may investigate your claim and find the business did everything within their power to put an end to the harassment. In this case, your charge will be dismissed, and you will simply receive a letter detailing their investigation and findings.
In the end, no matter what your outcome may be, it’s important to remember not to let discrimination control your life. If you feel you have been unfairly treated — even after filing a complaint — and have the ability to quit your job, it could be within your interest to look for a company that is more willing to accommodate your identity and treat you fairly.
Experiencing discrimination of any sort can be traumatizing and discouraging. However, know that you are not alone in your experiences. Bringing awareness to the issue can be the first step into building a better and brighter future for everyone. Don’t let your experiences define you, but find a support system that can help you rise above it and become stronger despite it all. Together, we can create a more equitable future for every identity.
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