Skip to main content

What is gender discrimination?

Legal guide image 1452556021

Gender discrimination can take many forms, but it's almost always illegal. Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against their employees (or prospective employees) on the basis of their gender.

What is gender discrimination?

Gender discrimination happens when an employer treats an employee differently (and unfavorably) because of their gender. Lower pay and reduced benefits are two examples of how this might happen. Sex discrimination is a violation of the victim's civil rights and can result in severe penalties for the employer.

Anyone can be a victim of gender-based discrimination. Discrimination against men is just as illegal as discrimination against women. Gender identity, transgender status, or sexual orientation may also be an element of this civil rights offense in some cases.

What are the common types of gender discrimination?

Sex discrimination can take numerous forms. Some of the most common include:

  • Pay discrepancies: If employees of one gender make more than employees of another gender, it may indicate discrimination.
  • Hiring practices: Refusing to hire a candidate based on their gender can also indicate discrimination.
  • Promotions: Offering opportunities for advancement to an employee based on gender (at the expense of a more qualified individual of a different gender) could constitute discrimination.
  • Sexual harassment: Unwanted sexual advances are a type of discrimination (and may also be a criminal offense).
  • Layoffs: Employers can't fire you on the basis of gender.
  • Benefits: Employers can't offer more benefits to employees of a specific gender.
  • Pregnancy: Employers can’t treat you differently if you become pregnant while employed (or if you apply for a job while pregnant).

Gender discrimination may take place during a job interview, or while you’re employed. However, both types of discrimination are illegal.

How do sexual harassment and hostile work environments impact a discrimination claim?

Employees are entitled to feel safe at work. Sexual harassment and hostile work environments violate that right, whether they're initiated by employers or other employees. The law holds the employer responsible for any workplace harassment that takes place.

Employees who harass other employees might not face criminal charges, but employers will typically create consequences for employees who violate another worker's rights. Vincent White, a New York labor attorney, says, "Most employers try to make the punishment proportionate to the seriousness of the offensive behavior," citing suspension, termination, and salary reduction as possible consequences.

A hostile work environment is also a form of gender discrimination. Unfortunately, it can be more difficult to define and prove. Tolerance of offensive touching or threatening behavior are one way a hostile work environment might be created. According to California employment attorney Timothy Broderick, repeated events might be considered more telling than a one-off offense.

Can anyone be a victim of gender discrimination?

Gender-based discrimination can impact anyone, whether inside the workplace or outside it. In some cases, the victim might not even realize the discrimination is happening.

For instance, many women don't know that it's illegal for a prospective employer to ask about her family life or marital status during an interview. This can represent a form of gender discrimination if the employer asks such a question and uses the answer to make a decision about whether or not to offer employment.

It’s important to recognize the infraction when it happens and seek a lawyer's guidance. Otherwise, the harassment or discrimination will likely continue — both for the original victim and also for future victims.

Can an employer ever legally discriminate based on gender?

In certain circumstances, an employer can refuse to hire an individual because of their gender. For instance, if a clothing manufacturer wants to create an advertising campaign for a men’s clothing line, it can legally solicit only male models because the clothing is directed toward a male audience, and a male model is necessary for authenticity. The same goes for a female role in a play; the producer doesn't have to consider male auditions.

But such scenarios are a rare exception to the rule, not the usual case.

What should you do if you believe you have been a victim of gender discrimination?

Gender discrimination can be difficult to prove, but that doesn't mean you shouldn’t report it. If you believe that you have been a victim of sex discrimination, you can file an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint. The EEOC is a federal agency that investigates cases of possible workplace discrimination.

You can also file a complaint with your state's Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA). These organizations offer faster handling of complaints in many cases, and FEPAs often dual-file complaints with the EEOC, as well.

Consulting a labor rights attorney can also help you protect yourself if you have been discriminated against. Attorneys can help you file appropriate documents, advise you about your employment status, and file lawsuits when necessary.

Finally, it’s a good idea to document gender discrimination. Keep a record of incidents as well as any evidence, such as intra-office memos that contain discriminatory language. Understanding your rights and taking action to preserve them will help protect you from sex discrimination.

Recommended articles about Employment

Can’t find what you’re looking for?


Post a free question on our public forum.

Ask a Question

- or -

Search for lawyers by reviews and ratings.

Find a Lawyer