Sex / Gender Discrimination: Overview

As modern society has made clear, women have the ability to perform with equal skill and success in virtually every endeavor engaged in by men — including employment, athletics, academics and politics. Yet discrimination on the basis of sex has a long history in the United States, and its residual effects still operate to keep women’s salaries lower and opportunities fewer in the employment realm. Although less common, men too can be subjected to unlawful sex discrimination. No matter what form it takes — unequal pay, discriminatory job standards, or failure to promote — numerous federal and state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

What Constitutes Sex Discrimination?

The essence of sex discrimination is unequal treatment on the basis of sex. The treatment must not simply be different, but also unequal, and therefore unfair. For example, requiring women and men to use separate restrooms does not constitute sex discrimination. But it is sex discrimination to provide different working conditions, salaries, hiring, promotion or bonus criteria to women and men. A unique form of sex discrimination is sexual harassment. Women and men have the right to secure and perform their jobs free of unwanted demands for romantic or sexual relationships, or unwanted communications or behaviors of a sexual nature that interfere with their ability to work.

Sex Discrimination and the Law: Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides strong protections against sex discrimination in employment. Specifically, Title VII makes it illegal for an employer:

“1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his [or her] compensation, terms, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s…sex…; or

“2) to limit, segregate, or classify employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise affect [the individual’s] status as an employee, because of such individual’s…sex….”

Title VII also prohibits sex discrimination in on-the-job and apprenticeship programs, retaliation against an employee for opposing a discriminatory employment practice, and sexually stereotyped advertisements for employment positions.

Workplace Harassment as Sexual Discrimination

Workplace harassment is another form of unlawful discrimination. Employers must not only grant women and men equal pay and opportunities, they must also remedy any sexual harassment situations that are known, or of which the employer should be aware. This includes both harassment of lower-tier employees by a manager or executive of lower position, and sexual harassment among coworkers. Harassment involves unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It is illegal for an employer to make sexual conduct a condition or term of employment, to base employment decisions on such conduct, or to permit sexual conduct that unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Lewd comments, unwanted touching, displays of sexual objects or photographs, or offensive cartoons or drawings may constitute sexual harassment when they interfere with an individual’s work performance.

Getting Legal Help for Sex Discrimination in Employment

Over the last few decades, Congress and the courts have taken significant steps to overcome sex discrimination. Most employers have procedures for reporting sexual discrimination, but these cases can still be difficult for an affected employee to address. Sometimes legal action becomes necessary when an employer takes a discriminatory position against a female or male employee based on sex. Speaking with an experienced employment law attorney can help you to protect your rights and to pursue a proper remedy if you’ve been the victim of discrimination.