Sexual Discrimination

Sexual discrimination occurs when individuals are treated differently or receive different outcomes solely because they are men or women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made sexual discrimination illegal in the American workplace. Specifically, Title VII prohibits discrimination against any employee or applicant for employment because of his or her sex with regard to hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or any other condition or privilege of employment. Title VII prohibitions also include sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. Although Title VII protects both sexes, women are systematically more likely than men to be victims of sexual discrimination.

Legally, sexual discrimination is identified as manifesting itself in one of two forms: disparate treatment and disparate impact. Disparate treatment refers to the differential treatment of an individual intentionally and specifically because that individual is a man or a woman. This includes discrimination predicated on assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals on the basis of sex. Examples of disparate treatment are asking men and women different questions during a job interview, offering a lower starting salary because the recruit is a woman, or exhibiting reluctance to hire a woman for a job that requires long hours and travel.

Disparate impact constitutes a broader definition of gender discrimination and is more complex. Disparate impact results when a particular group is systematically and adversely affected by a company’s policy. Although the policy may not have been created with the intent of discrimination, it may nonetheless disproportionately exclude individuals on the basis of sex for reasons that are not job related. For example, requiring applicants to take a selection test that involves lifting 100 pounds, even though 30 pounds is the maximum a person would need to lift on the job, might unnecessarily screen out qualified female applicants.

Evidence of Sexual Discrimination

Women have made substantial gains in the last several decades in the work domain: They now compose nearly half the U.S. labor market and had a labor force participation rate of 46.5% in 2003. In addition, women are closing the education gap, earning more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men and increasing their representation in business, law, and medical schools. Given the strides that women have made, coupled with the illegality of sexual discrimination, is sexual discrimination really a problem in the modern workplace? If so, what is its prevalence?

According to many sources of data, it is clear that sexual discrimination remains a concern in the work domain. One piece of direct evidence is the sheer number of sexual discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a key federal agency responsible for the enforcement of Title VII. In 2004, the EEOC received 24,249 charges of sex-based discrimination, an increase of 12% over the last decade. Moreover, these data are unlikely to capture the whole picture. Many women do not challenge the discriminatory practices they encounter in the workplace for fear of losing their jobs, and others are deterred by the personal and financial costs associated with submitting a claim.

By examining the general topography of the U.S. workforce and the way women fit into it, a clearer picture of gender inequity emerges. For example, although women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, they continue to be concentrated in occupations that are traditionally considered female— often support roles that are low in status and pay. In 2003, the top five occupations held by women were administrative assistant (96.3% female), registered nurse (90.2%), nursing, psychiatric, and home health aide (89%), elementary and middle school teacher (80.6%), and cashier (75.5%). Meanwhile, women remain decidedly underrepresented in roles that are traditionally considered male—roles that are often highest in authority, responsibility, and prestige in organizations.

This seemingly impenetrable barrier to women’s entrance into the highest echelons of organizations is often referred to as the glass ceiling. Indeed, the higher up in the organizational hierarchy one looks, the more scarce women become. For example, in 2003, despite occupying 50.5% of the managerial and specialty positions overall, in Fortune 500 companies, women made up only 15.7% of corporate officers and 13.6% of board members, and only eight women were CEOs. Not surprisingly in light of these figures, only 5.2% of the Fortune 500 top earners were women.

Gender inequities are also evident in the way women are compensated; women continue to be paid less than men. In 2003, for every dollar earned by a man, a woman earned 75.5 cents on average. Differences in the jobs and occupations held by men contribute somewhat to this discrepancy; however, even after controlling for factors such as education, job training, work experience, and occupation, more than half of the gap in earnings remains unexplained. Consider this: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women in 1997 earned less than men in 99% of all occupations.

Despite the significant advances that women have made over the past few decades, sexual discrimination continues to be a problem in organizational life. Women are consistently employed in lower-status jobs and earn less than men. This begs the question, why? In considering the causes of sexual discrimination in the workplace, gender stereotypes frequently are designated as the culprit.

Antecedents of Sexual Discrimination

Gender Stereotypes

The belief that women and men are different is widely shared in our culture; in fact, research suggests that men and women are often viewed as polar opposites. Men are thought to be rational, independent, decisive, and assertive, whereas women are described as illogical, dependent, indecisive, and passive. Men and women are also described differently with respect to the qualities of warmth and expressiveness, with women rated more favorably. Yet the traits associated with men and women are not only different but valued differently. Although each sex is credited with desirable traits, it is generally argued that male traits are more highly valued in Western culture than those associated with women. That is, the achievement-oriented traits typically ascribed to men have been shown to be more highly valued than the nurturing and affiliation-oriented traits typically ascribed to women; this is particularly true with respect to the work domain.

How do these stereotypes translate into discrimination in the workplace? The answer to this question lies not only in the stereotypes about women but also in conceptions of what is required to effectively handle jobs that are considered to be male. Taken together, these elements determine performance expectations— expectations that ultimately become the precursor to sexual discrimination.

Expectations about how successful or unsuccessful an individual will be when working at a particular job are determined by the fit between the perceived attributes of the individual and the perceived attributes required for success at that particular job. If the fit is good, then success will be expected; if the fit is poor, then failure will be expected. These fit-derived performance expectations, whether positive or negative, play a key role in evaluation processes because individuals have a tendency to perpetuate and confirm them. Once an expectation has been formed, it becomes a lens through which information is filtered, including what is attended to, how it is interpreted, and whether it is remembered and recalled when making critical decisions.

Applying this reasoning to women in organizations, the lack of fit between the stereotype-based perceptions of women’s attributes and the perceptions of many job requirements leads hiring managers to conclude that women are ill-equipped to handle certain types of work—namely, work that is considered to be male sex-typed—and the expectation that women are unlikely to succeed in traditionally male roles. These performance expectations are powerful in their impact: They create a tenacious predisposition to view women in a way that that is consistent with the expectation, thereby detrimentally affecting the way they are regarded and the way their work is evaluated. The behavioral consequence is sexual discrimination.

From Expectations to Discrimination

Research has demonstrated that the expectation of failure for women often permeates the entire process of women’s careers. In personnel selection, there is a tendency for men to be preferred over women of similar qualifications when the job is one traditionally held by men. For example, researchers have found that for managerial positions, the same resume is rated more favorably when it is believed to belong to a man rather than a woman. Women are also placed in positions that seem more appropriate for their attributes— ones in which the fit seems good. Thus, women tend to be placed in staff rather than line jobs, where they can provide support and assistance, something they are thought to be well-equipped to do.

When women do attain jobs that are considered to be male sex-typed, the effects of negative expectations deriving from perceptions of lack of fit persist. Men and women producing identical work are often evaluated differently, with women’s work regarded as inferior. Even when a woman’s successful performance is indisputable, evaluators may attribute it to some factor other than the woman herself, be it another person (if she has worked in a group), the ease of the task, or some transient factor such as luck. If it is impossible to dismiss her role in her success and she is acknowledged as competent in a male sex-typed role, then she seems to be disliked. There are many “shoulds” attached to gender stereotypes that, when violated, have negative consequences. Thus, assertive behavior that is seen as tough and decisive when acted out by a man may be seen as “bitchy” when done by a woman.

These findings have obvious implications not only for entry-level access to organizations but also for advancement opportunities such as training programs, promotions, and career trajectories in organizations. These individual processes, at an aggregate level, account for macro-level discrimination: the discrepancies in the types of roles women occupy, the roles they don’t, and the compensation they receive for their work.


Despite being made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination on the basis of sex continues to be a problem in today’s work organizations. At the root of this problem are gender stereotypes and the expectations they produce, which ultimately result in the differential treatment of men and women on the basis of their sex.


  1. Dipboye, R. A., & Colella, A. (Eds.). (2005). Discrimination at work: The psychological and organizational bases. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Heilman, M. E. (1995). Sex stereotypes and their effects in the workplace: What we know and what we don’t know. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10(6), 3-26.
  3. Heilman, M. E. (2001). Description and prescription: How gender stereotypes prevent women’s ascent up the organizational ladder. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 657-674.

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