Take These 4 Steps to Combat Gender Discrimination in the Workplace


woman holding a #MeToo sign

Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Even though we live in the #MeToo and Time's Up age, when employers, businesses, and people around the world are starting to take sexual harassment  seriously and punishing the men and women responsible for ignoring or refusing to adhere to standards (and laws) of gender equality, gender discrimination in the workplace still exists.

What Is Gender Discrimination, and How Prevalent Is It?

Gender discrimination occurs when someone is treated poorly because of his or her sex.
A Pew Research Survey conducted last year reveals that 42 percent of women say they have faced discrimination while at work. The most prevalent examples include women reporting earning less than men doing the same job or work as they are and being treated as incompetent. A smaller but still significant percentage (16 percent and 15 percent respectively) reported experiencing repeated, small slights at work and receiving less support from senior leaders compared with their male counterparts in similar roles.
An online survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment reveals that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced some type of sexual harassment—one form of gender discrimination—in their lifetimes. And a Marist Poll finds that 22 percent of adults and 35 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

4 Ways to Combat Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

It is clear that something needs to change to protect both women and men in and out of the workplace. What steps can companies and employers take to make all of their employees feel safe and comfortable at work and home?
Here are four important ways companies can prevent gender discrimination from taking place in their offices and address it appropriately when it does.

1. Create an equal opportunity policy.

Diversity is essential to keeping a company thriving. Not only will incorporating people of different backgrounds, viewpoints, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and, yes, genders into your work environment help you avoid committing employment discrimination, but it will also bolster your business. After all, if everybody working at a particular brand or organization comes from the same perspective and background, how will you develop new and diverse ideas?
This mindset is why Slack removed requirements related to a certain number of years of experience required for positions from its job postings. Since many women take time off for maternity leave, to raise their children, or care for other family members, they may appear to have fewer years of experience on the job than male counterparts—while still having the same level of knowledge and skills. Removing the requirement opened up positions to candidates who may have otherwise assumed they were not qualified based on gaps in their resumes.
Creating an equal opportunity policy helps ensure that women and men have access to the same positions, opportunities for advancement, and other job perks. In addition to having this policy, make sure your employees actually follow it by sending out reminders (not just when incidents occur) and posting your policy in several visible locations.

2. Educate employees about gender discrimination in the workplace.

Gender-based discrimination isn't limited to passing qualified women over for promotions or hiring (or refusing to hire) someone based on her gender or gender identity. It encompasses harassment of many different types, using gender stereotypes, and in any way making someone feel uncomfortable or discriminated against on the basis of his or her gender. (That's right: men can be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, too.)
Hold events and workshops to inform employees about promote gender equality at work. You might, for instance, engage outside speakers to conduct sessions on discrimination at work. To liven up these workshops, you might incorporate them into company retreats or other outings—that way, employees will associate them with fun events, rather than regard them as a "have to."
Along with teaching employees about what constitutes gender inequality and sex discrimination at work, make sure employees understand what is not discrimination—such as asking a colleague to lunch or congratulating her on a promotion.

3. Take immediate action to address complaints.

If anyone, male or female, lodges a complaint against someone at your organization for discriminatory behavior or harassment, don't wait for the situation to escalate. Establish a clear procedure for how you will handle situations like these, and follow suit as soon as this type of behavior occurs. It will likely include interviewing the participants—the complainant and the accused, as well as anyone else who may have witnessed the incident or was otherwise involved—, thoroughly investigating the issue, coming up with a resolution, which may involve putting the accused on paid or unpaid leave, depending on the circumstances, or dismissing the employee altogether, and taking steps to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

Keeping the workplace safe

While you don't want to jump to conclusions, you need to make sure your employees know that their voices are being heard and that they feel safe at work. Take steps to ensure that the employee who has complained does not have to work one-on-one with the person she has accused while you are investigating the incident. This might mean having her report to another person in her chain of command at least temporarily if the person against whom she has leveraged the complaint is her direct manager.
No matter what the issue is, if one of your employees feel uncomfortable or has been made to feel uncomfortable by another employee, you need to take it seriously. Whether or not you are friends with the person she is accusing should not play a factor in the measures you take, nor should the employee's stellar reputation or work ethic come into play. It's important to resolve issues quickly and effectively because they can impact not just the people involved, but your whole organization, if left unresolved. Avoid letting the issue escalate any further by taking immediate action.

4. Check your own unconscious biases—and make sure your employees do, too.

We all have unconscious biases, whether we realize it or not (in fact, the whole notion of unconscious bias is that we may NOT be aware of our preconceived notions about people or groups of people).
As part of educating your employees about discrimination, address unconscious bias and how it can play a role in the ways in which colleagues talk to one another, communicate in general, and make decisions. Use examples—for instance, asking a woman if she has children or intends to in the future does not affect her skills and ability to do her job any more than it affects a male candidate's.

Spotting unconscious bias at work

Pay attention to the way you and others treat women and men in the workplace. Are you giving some people unfair advantages or even talking to them differently because of their gender? Do you prioritize the needs of certain groups of people over others?
Having unconscious biases doesn't make you a bad person. What's important is that you are aware of the biases you do have and take care to avoid letting them affect your job and how you treat other people. Work to promote a culture that is welcoming to all different people, their views, and their unique perspectives and ideas.


Is it illegal to discriminate based on gender?

Yes. Gender discrimination doesn't just make men and women feel uncomfortable—it's also illegal. 

What is the law on gender discrimination?

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Private employers, state and local government organizations, and any agencies with 15 or more employees must comply with these guidelines. Additionally, many states have additional legal protections to prevent sex discrimination in the workplace.

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About the Career Expert:

Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.