Boys, Girls and Workplace Discrimination

Gender stereotyping assumes men and women should possess certain sex-based characteristics to be successful. The courts disagree, and you would be wise to as well.

Posted by Dawn Lomer in Discrimination, Employment Law, Human Resources on March 5th, 2012
In 1989, Ann Hopkins was denied partnership in accounting firm Price Waterhouse for some pretty interesting reasons. She was told that, among other things, she wasn’t charming and didn’t walk, talk or dress in a feminine way. She was also told that she should style her hair and wear makeup.  The courts ruled that it was a form of discrimination and the case became one of the early well-documented cases of sex discrimination based on gender stereotyping.

It’s an area than can easily overlap with other types of discrimination, explains Philip Miles, an attorney with Pennsylvania law firm McQuaide Blasko. In cases of discrimination based on appearance, it can sometimes be argued that the appearance characteristics in question constitute a gender stereotype.

In this case, “the court said, ‘you’re applying stereotypes to her [Hopkins] based on her being a woman and by insisting that she conform to these stereotypes that’s actually a form of sex discrimination’”, says Miles.

Gender Stereotyping = Sex Discrimination

In fact, the Court held that Title VII forbids employers from discriminating against an employee for failing to live up to gender role expectations. The justices concluded that: “We are beyond the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”

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But what about companies like Hooters, which have been known to refuse to hire certain people because they don’t match their “look” policy? Miles concedes that sometimes these policies are not seen to be discriminatory, depending on the circumstances, but he warns employers to be very careful when making employment decisions based on these types of criteria.

Yes, Hooters can refuse to hire flat-chested women, but employers who use such criteria in hiring may still find themselves in hot water.  “You can make the argument that you’re applying a stereotype that women should be large-chested, they should have a certain amount of curves, weigh a certain amount, and that by applying this stereotype you’re discriminating on the bases of sex,” says Miles. “But generally speaking, can Hooters discriminate based on appearance? Yes, in most jurisdictions they can.”

Provide Back-Up

Miles suggests that employers ensure their managers think carefully about the reasoning behind their decisions. “Make sure they have some sort of legitimate criteria that they’re basing their hiring, promotion and pay decisions on,” he says. “Of course people making these decisions have to have some discretion, but employers should require that some type of documentation, some type of rationale, be provided for these decisions.”  This documentation should be maintained by HR, in case it’s ever needed to justify an employment decision.

Miles also recommends including some specific training for hiring managers. “Ideally the managers should already be going through the standard discrimination training that deals with definitions of sexual harassment and the mainstream discrimination situations such as race, religion, national origins, etc. And I would include in that training the concept of gender stereotyping… If there’s any question at all about whether you’re making a decision based on one of these protected characteristics, the manager needs to contact HR for guidance.”

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.