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. 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. If you run a small business and hire workers to assist you, as an employer you should understand your legal obligation to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace.
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:
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.
For Employers - Getting Help for Sex Discrimination Liability
Employers are encouraged to have procedures for reporting sexual discrimination. If your business is facing a potential sex discrimination claim by a current or former employee, speak with an experienced employment law attorney to discuss your options and protect your business.