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 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.

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.

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

Gender discrimination can affect scheduling, vacation time, sick leave and compensatory time. And, of course, if a woman is denied a job because of her sex, this is blatant gender discrimination. This might be the case if a highly skilled woman were to apply for a job with the National Football League as a referee and she's not offered the job because of her sex and it's alleged that her presence on the field might be distracting to male players.

Or maybe because she can't possibly understand the intricacies of the game because she's a woman. She might be denied a job in construction because she's not considered strong enough to perform it. Discrimination extends to transgender individuals under federal law, as well as to sexual orientation.


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 her male counterparts according to company policy, but behavior toward her in the workplace is untenable and it's related to her gender.

This would be the case if she were subjected to unwelcome touching or even offensive jokes aimed at her sex or sexual identity, provided that these occurrences are pervasive and consistent enough. In other words, one joke might be OK. Repeated jokes on a daily or frequent basis is harassment. Harassment can also involve promises of advancement in exchange for sexual favors. 

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. 

How to Report Discrimination

If you or someone you know is a victim of gender discrimination in the workplace, you – or she – should first make the situation known to your company's human resources department.

Speak with your supervisor if your company doesn't have a human resources department.

If you don't get relief, you may be required to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a charge of discrimination before you resort to suing your employer. This rule can be superseded by state law to some extent, so see a local attorney to find out exactly what the requirements are where you work. You may have as little as six months to file a charge and the EEOC must typically investigate your complaint first before you're permitted to take other civil action.