If things proceed as they have been thus far, it will take 100 years to achieve gender equality in the workplace. That’s according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, which found that factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis have caused us to lose an additional 10 years before we achieve gender equality. Moreover, women who are members of other minority groups with respect to sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ethnicity, religion and more disproportionately experience gender inequality.
Gender inequality and gender discrimination have long been all too pervasive in the workplace and beyond. But the pandemic has set women back significantly. McKinsey & Company estimates that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the disaster than men’s jobs are.
Why is this the case? There are many reasons. For example, childcare, senior care and other family care responsibilities are more likely to be taken on by women than men, which impacts their jobs. COVID-19 and the economic crisis have also adversely impacted female entrepreneurship.
Gender inequality is not identical to gender discrimination, of course, but with a decline of female representation in the workplace, the conditions for women are worsening, too. Moreover, these effects are not temporary — they could be felt for many years and possibly decades into the future, even after the world has seemingly bounced back in other respects.
So, what can we as a global society do about it? Find out what the signs of gender discrimination are and how employees and employers can take strides to combat them.
It’s impossible to give a simple, concise definition of gender discrimination because it’s a complex topic and can manifest in many different forms. Most basically, it means that a person is denied opportunities, benefits or any other type of rights and privilege or is treated differently due to their gender. It can apply to people of all genders, although it more commonly affects women.
Behavior that falls into this category is illegal (the laws concerning gender discrimination are outlined below). However, even with many federal and state laws in place to protect workers, gender discrimination is, unfortunately, pervasive in the United States and around the world. They protect transgender individuals as well as cisgender individuals.
There are many types of discrimination that fall into the broader category of gender discrimination. The overarching and common characteristic is that it happens because of the person’s gender, although it can also happen because of multiple factors in addition to this.
Discrimination based on gender (or sex) is a common civil rights violation that takes many forms, including sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and unequal pay for women who do the same jobs as men.
It’s important to note that while gender discrimination is sometimes referred to as sex discrimination, sex and gender are not the same. Sex is something people are assigned based on their biological characteristics. Gender, meanwhile, is an identity, as well as a societal perception. A person doesn’t always identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, whether they’re male, female, gender fluid, gender non-conforming or something else. Still, discrimination based on sex OR gender is illegal no matter what.
There are many laws at the federal, state and local levels mean to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace. Two of the most notable federal laws are:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is perhaps the most important civil rights legislation passed in U.S. history. It prohibits any discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Provisions of this law apply directly to gender discrimination in the workplace, most notably Title VII. This federal law specifically concerns employment, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This law encompasses “compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment.”
We’ll go into more detailed examples below, but generally speaking, the law concerns:
• Firing and dismissals
• Work assignments
• Disability leave
• Additional benefits
• Anything else that concerns gender or sex and employment and treating people of different genders differently
Title VII concerns public and private employers with 15 employees or more. (Many states have similar laws in place for employers with fewer than 15 employees.) The law is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The only exception to Title VII is when there is a legitimate reason why gender or another protected class plays a significant role in successfully performing the work. This is called a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ).
The Equal Pay Act is an amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act and is one of the earliest federal laws addressing gender discrimination in wage disparities. Signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, it prohibits employers from paying men and women different wages for commensurate work.
Specifically, the Equal Pay Act states that men and women must receive equal pay for equal work — “equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort and responsibility and which are performed under similar working conditions.” That means that while the positions themselves don’t need to be exactly the same, they should have equivalent content, not determined by the corresponding job title.
Salary is not the only form of compensation covered by this law. Bonuses, benefits like life insurance, payment for vacation and holiday time (paid time off or PTO) and overtime are other examples of wages and payment encompassed by the Equal Pay Act.
The Equal Pay Act does have certain exceptions. These are circumstances under which payment is made due to:
1. A seniority system
2. A merit system
3. A system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production
4. A differential based on any other factor other than sex
Gender discrimination encompasses many behaviors. Below are just a few examples.
This is a problem that pervades numerous companies and industries. It also directly violates the Equal Pay Act. Unless there are legitimate factors at play, such as the person receiving merit bonuses strictly based on performance, people of different genders in equal roles must receive equal pay.
“It would be nice to have another man around” may seem like an innocuous comment, but it’s a form of gender discrimination if that manifests in the hiring process.
Even if gender is not the sole determining factor in promoting one individual over another — say, because a woman may get pregnant and go on maternity leave for a period — this is still discrimination.
Sexual harassment is a type of gender discrimination that can also take on many forms, such as inappropriate jokes or comments or advances that the victim does not want or encourage.
Say the interview probes about a woman’s plans to have children — not okay. But there are more subtle ways gender discrimination can play a role in interviews, such as if the interviewer only asks women whether they have children and not men.
Performance reviews are biased, the Harvard Business Review revealed. While it may seem like they’re strictly about performance, everyone has subconscious or unconscious biases, and sometimes, they can play a role in this seemingly merit-based process.
One example of this is if employers assume a man is the “head of his household” and offers benefits like health insurance that extended to his entire family, while the women are not provided with the same benefit.
The company encourages male employees to go on business outings with male clients, while telling the female employees they wouldn’t be interested? Gender discrimination.
Let’s say a female server is carrying heavy trays — something she is perfectly capable of doing and has done many times. If the manager decides a man should be carrying them instead, that’s not an act of kindness if the female serve doesn’t want to decrease her load.
Retaliation because of a gender discrimination complaint is gender discrimination in and of itself. It’s illegal to punish employees for reporting discrimination by, for example, firing them or harassing them.
It’s clear that gender discrimination is certainly problematic, but the effects can extend much further than simply wounding someone — it can have serious consequences for their lives in and out of the workplace. Some of the effects include:
Employees may have trouble concentrating and doing their work because of the discrimination they are experiencing.
Employees who are experiencing gender discrimination at work are often less likely to want to go to work and may frequently call out sick to avoid having to deal with a hostile and unfair workplace.
Understandably, victims of gender discrimination may feel unsafe — physically or psychologically — in their workplaces
Gender discrimination’s effects can reverberate throughout the company, leading to low morale in general.
Even if you have allies at work, it’s natural to feel isolated and as though you’re in this situated alone when you’re facing gender discrimination.
Discrimination of all types can affect victims deeply, leading to depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions that can last far beyond the discrimination itself, even if you leave the employer and environment. Feelings of anger and low self-esteem can also be frequent.
Gender discrimination can have consequences for the employer as well as the employee. Nobody wants to work in a hostile environment, and you may find that turnover is high when this is occurring.
Discrimination encompasses conflict. Harassment is also often a component of gender discrimination, which leads to sometimes-vocal conflict, as well as other types of workplace conflict and disputes.
If gender discrimination is part of your workplace environment, your reputation as an employer will suffer. In addition to experiencing high turnover, you may find that it’s difficult to recruit employees, who may well have heard about the contact in your workplace.
The problems employers experience as a result of workplace discrimination can extend far beyond the negative effects outlined above. Because this behavior is illegal, a victim may well take legal action against you if they’ve experienced it in your workplace. You, the employer, will be held accountable even if another employee or a third party was the perpetrator.
Gender discrimination is damaging to both victims and employers. So, what can you do about it? Here’s how to manage it and contribute to a safer atmosphere, as well as protect yourself.
Chances are, your employer has a policy against gender discrimination and discrimination of other protected classes. Read it carefully and thoroughly to find out what the rules and procedures are regarding reporting this behavior. Most likely, it’s outlined in your employee handbook
If you’re comfortable following the procedures outlined, do so. But if you’re not — for example, if the policy tells you to report abuse to your manager first, but they’re the perpetrator — skip the steps that could put you in further danger or make you feel uncomfortable and proceed according to what works best for your personal situation.
Document the details of the gender discrimination that’s occurring, including all incidents, dates and times, perpetrators, locations and witnesses who were present. This documentation will be important when (and if) you report it. Your account will be more verifiable and easier to investigate with this evidence.
Follow the procedures outlined in your company policy (again, as long as you’re comfortable doing so). This will usually involve going to your manager and/or HR to report the discrimination. As uncomfortable as this step may be, it’s usually crucial to make the report, which will dictate future steps, depending on what they do next. It will also be helpful in making a legal claim, should you decide to do so — you’re demonstrating that you followed protocol.
Make sure to do this in writing, so you have a record.
If your employer is not addressing your complaint to your satisfaction and/or you’re continuing to experience gender discrimination, the next step would be to consult an employment attorney, who can review your case and advise you on how to proceed.
You don’t have to consult an attorney prior to filing a complaint with the EEOC, although you may choose to do so. Either way, you may choose to proceed with your complaint, which you must file within 180 days of the discrimination (300 if your complaint is also covered by additional state or local laws) if you’re filing under Title VII (if you’re filing under the Equal Pay Act, you have two years to file from the date of the issuing of the last discriminatory paycheck).
The EEOC will investigate and may issue you a Notice of Right to Sue, which usually takes 180 days.
Regular training is required by law in some states. Even if it’s not in yours, you should provide it anyway, teaching all your employees what constitutes harassment and discrimination and how to recognize it. Managers and supervisors should receive additional training on how to handle complaints and the steps they need to take.
Training should not be a one-off. Employers should provide regular training on how to make the environment safe for everyone.
Establishing a zero-tolerance policy, one that provides thorough definitions and examples of gender discrimination and outlines the consequences for violations. This written policy should be distributed to all employees and posted in a clear location if you have a brick-and-mortar office. It should also explain the steps for reporting complaints.
Employers need to follow through on all complaints and conduct an exhaustive investigation into every report of discrimination, no matter the position or the accused or accuser. They should also document the complaint and the procedures they took.
An important part of establishing an inclusive culture is by ensuring representation in high-level positions. Make a conscious effort to promote and hire qualified, diverse candidates into positions of leadership. You should also strive to put women into board positions. This can have a positive effect on the entire organization.
When you establish committees meant to increase representation and cultivate an inclusive atmosphere at your company, such as employee resource groups (ERGs), you’re demonstrating that you take your role as a leader in promoting diversity and combatting discrimination seriously.
Ask these groups and committees to make recommendations about how to improve awareness, diversity and representation at your organization, and act on their advice, which may mean establishing new initiatives and programs, along with other ideas.
Gender discrimination is a dangerous, pervasive problem in the workplace and beyond. But making it our collective responsibility can improve workplace conditions and establish a stronger culture. These steps are the beginning.