By Kizzy M. Dominguez, Ph.D.
Gender discrimination in the workplace, also known as sex discrimination, occurs when an employee is treated differently than other employees because of his or her sex or gender identity. There are two main legal classifications of gender discrimination: disparate treatment and disparate impact. The former is when the discrimination is intentional, while the later focuses on the unintentional discriminatory consequences of an action or corporate policy. Disparate treatment is much more visible and easier to handle, while disparate impact can go unnoticed and untreated for much longer. Under these two umbrellas, there are several categories of workplace gender bias:
- Stereotyping: Making presumptions, whether conscious or unconscious, about a person based on their sex is called gender stereotyping. This can be harmful because it causes a person to mistreat others based on preconceived notions that are untrue. This type of discrimination can lead to unequal pay and unfair hiring/firing/promoting practices. Here is an example of sex stereotyping in the workplace: “You are a woman who works in the sales department of a major retail chain. You have short hair and dress in pants most days. Although you meet deadlines and sales quotas, you receive poor performance evaluations, which include comments about your lack of femininity and ‘aggressive’ nature. Men with similar personality traits and equally or less impressive sales records to your own receive above average performance evaluations and are promoted more quickly.”
- Gender Roles: A gender role is a set of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person of a certain sex. Similar to stereotyping, gender role discrimination happens when an employee is expected to perform certain duties based on his or her sex with negative consequences for not meeting those expectations. This type of discrimination can lead to unequal benefits and unfair job classification practices. Here is an example of gender role discrimination in the workplace: “Your company’s health insurance policy does not cover your spouse, because it is assumed that he will have his own benefits, while your male coworkers have their wives covered by the policy. Because your husband is between jobs, you have to pay increased health benefits on his behalf that your coworkers do not pay for their wives.”
- Sexual Harassment: Any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is considered sexual harassment, especially when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an employee’s job status. There is also sex-based harassment that is not of a sexual nature that includes frequent derogatory comments about a certain gender. This type of discrimination may unreasonably interfere with an individual’s work performance and can create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Here is an example of sexual harassment in the workplace: “Your boss is the vice president of the company. He repeatedly makes unwelcome comments about your body and routinely puts his arm around your waist when discussing work-related matters. You tell him his behavior makes you uncomfortable and ask him to stop. He says, ‘Maybe you are too uptight for this job. I probably should never have hired you.’ You now are afraid of losing your job if you don’t ‘loosen up.’”
Is Workplace Gender Discrimination Illegal?
Gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal under the federal law Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, it prevents employers from discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. It applies to private employers, state and local government employers, labor organizations, and employment agencies with 15 or more employees. Most states also have their own laws to protect employees against sex bias in the corporate world. These are usually stricter than the federal law. For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act makes discrimination illegal in companies with five or more employees instead of 15.
Can I Help Prevent This Type of Discrimination?
Absolutely! Each and every employee, manager, and executive plays a vital role in preventing gender discrimination in the workplace. Try these four steps to promote a healthy work environment for all genders:
- Cultural Foundation — Start the prevention of gender discrimination by setting a strong non-discriminatory cultural foundation for your company. During the induction process, ensure that employees understand and value the same behaviors you do — i.e., no tolerance for discrimination. Provide comprehensive staff policies, handbooks, and procedures that cover the entire employment process. Also, explain to your employees, especially line managers, how to access and reinforce company culture and policies to encourage the continuing adherence to fair practices.
- Equal Hiring Practices — Next, examine your hiring practices for gender bias: do you give more call backs to men or women simply based on their name? Do you ask men versus women different questions during the interview? Do you evaluate qualifications similarly between genders? What factors do you judge more with men versus women: dress, attitude, skills, etc.? Also look at the criteria for every job: do they unintentional turn-off or disadvantage one gender? If you notice any discriminatory hiring practices, reevaluate your process and try including a third-party as an outside perspective.
- Fair Promotions — When promoting internally, try monitoring and ensuring the development of female employees, or those who are typically overlooked in these circumstances. Another tactic includes establishing a network and mentoring programs to help train and inform employees of opportunities for promotion. Lastly, train new managers to identify potential discriminatory behavior and take steps to eliminate it.
- Training Courses — If you’re managing the fight against gender discrimination at work and need outside reinforcements, diversity and inclusion training courses can be an effective resource. Along with educating your employees and managers on gender-neutral workplace behaviors and policies, these courses can help you uncover hidden biases. The K Learning course Unmasking the Hidden is an exploration of unconscious bias at work that allows you and your employees to analyze pre-established filters, hard-wired patterns, and biases that we all have. Courses such as these are invaluable tools for a well-rounded approach to gender equality in the workplace.
The cost of letting company gender bias go untreated is catastrophic in our ever-increasingly global and diverse market. Not only is this type of discrimination illegal under Title VII, it also causes a social phenomenon called the “glass ceiling,” an unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements. And it won’t stop there. Gender discrimination doesn’t just affect women or individuals — it can create an intimidating, hostile, and offensive work environment for all employees, especially if reporting it is discouraged by management. Take the next step to preventing gender discrimination in your workplace by requesting a discovery session with KPC to discuss your unique goals and learn how our customized curriculum will transform your organization.