What is gender discrimination?
Gender discrimination is sexism or prejudice based on someone’s sex or gender, and it can happen to anyone, anywhere. But when it happens in the workplace? It’s illegal.
Still, despite there being laws in place to protect employees and job applicants, gender discrimination occurs fairly often. According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of working women in the U.S. have faced gender discrimination while on the job.
Yes, you read that right. It’s likely that half the women in your office have experienced some sort of discrimination based on their gender over the course of their career—when they applied for a job, when they were passed over for a promotion, during the interview, when they received their job assignments. They might have even been fired because of it.
Clearly, there’s a larger cultural problem afoot here, but it’s important to know that:
1) You have rights
2) You’re not crazy if you think you’re being discriminated against
3) You’re not alone
Here’s everything you need to know—from legality to office allies—about gender discrimination in the workplace.
What constitutes gender discrimination in the workplace?
For gender discrimination to be illegal, it has to adversely affect your “terms of conditions of employment.” Violations include:
Your position or job duties
Your work schedule, shift, or job location
Promotion or training opportunities
Unlawful treatment occurs when an employer treats an applicant or employee differently because of their sex or gender or because they don’t prescribe to traditional gender norms. Gender discrimination also includes everything beneath the sexual harassment umbrella, such as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical harassment.
Laws that protect against gender discrimination
These are a few of the laws that protect you if something happens:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Title VII specifically protects employees against discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. A federal law, Title VII applies to all employers—private employers, state and local government employers, labor organizations, employment agencies, and joint employer-union apprenticeship programs—with 15 or more employees.
In that same vein, discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation has been traditionally categorized under Title VII as well. The Equality Act, if passed, would solidify those protections by amending the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit, and the jury system.
Equal Pay Act of 1963
Put simply, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) is a small-scale version of Title VII. The EPA protects employees only from pay discrimination based on sex. Something like sexual harassment would be covered under Title VII, but not the EPA.
Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
Traditionally, there’s been a 180-day time limit to submit a claim of gender discrimination, but the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act clarifies those terms: The time limit restarts every time a new offense occurs. So in the case of unfair pay, each new discriminatory paycheck restarts the 180-day filing period, making it possible for women who don’t know they’re being discriminated against to file charges. Read more about the Lilly Ledbetter case here.
FMLA protects employees’ jobs while they’re taking a sanctioned leave of absence, such as for the birth or adoption of a child or to look after ill family member. Employees at companies with 50 or more employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act protects female workers who are pregnant or intend to become pregnant from being discriminated against during all stages of employment, such as hiring, promotion, and termination.
Other federal laws like Title IX and the Fair Housing Act protect people from gender discrimination outside the office, and many states and municipalities have legislation that builds on laws already in place. This state-by-state guide is a good place to start to orient yourself to the protections you have.
Examples of gender discrimination at work
You’ve probably seen gender discrimination in action, whether in person or in movies. These are a few examples you’ll see most often:
Sexual harassment—Your boss says he’d love to talk more about a project, but only if it’s over drinks at his house.
Unequal pay—You find out Chad is making more money than you even though you do the same job. Actually, Chad, Brad, and Vlad are making more money than you.
Interviews—During your interview, the hiring manager doesn’t ask you about your qualifications, but whether you think your kids will get in the way of you doing your job. (Here's what to do if you're asked illegal questions during an interview.)
Diminished responsibilities—Sure, you have a master’s degree in electrical engineering, but we’re going to let Vlad (remember him?) take the lead. Can you grab the coffee for the meeting?
Promotions—Women aren’t making their way up to management-level positions. See also: the glass ceiling.
Firing—For whatever reason, all the women who start working at the office end up leaving in just a few months, and it’s not by choice.
Shift changes—After you have a baby, your boss decides the best shift for you is third shift and refuses to switch it even though you definitely can’t make it work.
Training opportunities—Vlad (ugh, Vlad) and all the other guys in the office are going to conference to learn more about a new program your company will be using.
What to do if you experience gender discrimination at work
If you experience gender discrimination in the workplace, you have the right to do something about it. Here are the steps you need to take to protect yourself:
Write it down—Document everything: what happened, who was involved, the date and time of the incident, and the names of any witnesses.
Ask others to write down what they saw—To bolster your evidence, ask witnesses to make their own notes on what happened or continues to happen.
Report it—Follow the chain of command if possible. Speak to your supervisor or that person’s boss first. If that doesn’t help, talk to human resources.
Contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—The EEOC helps employees fight discrimination situations like this. File a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. They’ll investigate and, hopefully, help you and your employer meet in the middle.
Meet with an attorney—So you know your rights, meet with someone who understands employment law and the nitty gritty of filing (whether there are time limits, whether you still need to be employed there, etc).
Sue—Again, your attorney will help here.
For more details on how the EEOC process works and to answer some frequently asked questions, check out our article on sexual harassment. While not all gender discrimination is sexual harassment, the same rules apply.
What to do if you witness gender discrimination in the office
If you witness gender discrimination in the workplace, you should take steps to align yourself with what is right—aka the law. You won’t put yourself in jeopardy by becoming an ally because the law protects you from retaliation. Here a few steps to take (they’ll sound oddly familiar):
Write it down—Hopefully, the coworker who was discriminated against is already taking notes. You should, too. Write down what happened, when, and who was there. Be as detailed as possible.
Say something—Tell the person you think what they’re doing is discriminatory. In cases like sexual harassment or interview questions, it’s easy enough for people to change course simply by not doing the action again. When you call them out (professionally), you give them the opportunity to learn from the experience.
Tell someone—You might know a coworker is being paid unfairly, or you might have heard a manager say they fired a woman...because she’s a woman. Report what you know to your manager, another executive, or to HR. Include your notes.
Advocate for a better working culture—Discriminatory practices are often deeply ingrained in company culture. Talk to your coworkers about how great it is to have a diverse office where people feel welcome and valued. Make efforts to include those outside your normal circle in happy hour and lunch invites.
How companies should deal with gender discrimination
Ding, ding, ding—address it immediately! Or even better: Stop it before it starts.
Develop a policy—Create company policy that’s inclusive of all employees. This means you likely have to go beyond what Title VII ensures, though it’s a good start. Make that policy part of your company’s core values.
Educate your employees—Make sure your employees know your company policy as well as state and federal laws pertaining to gender discrimination. Then teach them how to report it if it happens and what to do if they witness it. Schedule time for managers to be trained, too. Everyone needs to know how the rules and the process works.
Address problems when they occur—If someone comes forward with a gender discrimination claim, take it seriously. No one wins when you decide to sweep things under the rug. No one. And you’re putting yourself and your company in legal jeopardy.
Champion diversity—Look for training opportunities that keep diversity and inclusion top of mind. Sensitivity training and talks about unconscious bias are helpful in that they teach us the issues we don’t see. The more you know about a problem, the more likely you are to be able to fix it.