Gender Stereotyping in the Workplace and the Discrimination it Creates — Danica Dodds

(Note: Paula Brantner is on vacation this week, so this post was written by Danica Dodds, American University Washington College of Law Class of 2008, a legal intern for Workplace Fairness in summer 2006.)

Stereotypes can be extremely harmful because they can cause a person to mistreat others based on preconceived notions that are untrue. “[R]esearch indicates that most people are not aware of how stereotyping automatically influences their thinking and, therefore, believe that their perceptions are based on objective observations.” (See Stereotyping Contributes to the Stark Gender Gap in U.S. Business Leadership.)Many people tend to make conscious and unconscious presumptions about other people based on their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or age.

This article will focus on gender stereotypes, and specifically, the negative effect they have on women in the workplace environment.Gender stereotyping in the workplace often leads to discrimination.Gender discrimination has many severe consequences ranging from unequal pay for women for equal work, to the lack of promotions, to sexual harassment.These negative effects are still very prevalent in the workplace despite the many laws that have been implemented to prevent the discriminatory effects of gender stereotyping, and despite the court system that is supposed to uphold those laws.Accordingly, other measures need to take place in order to rectify the problem.

Finally, it should be noted that while this article primarily focuses on the negative effects that gender stereotyping produces for women in the workplace, men also face gender stereotyping and discrimination; in particular, homosexual men have faced a significant amount of discrimination, for not acting “masculine enough”. (See Zalewski v. Overlook Hospital, 692 A.2d 131 (1996), and Vickers v. Fairfield Medical Center, 453 F.3d 757 (2006))

Gender stereotyping leads to wage discrimination. On average, women’s wages are only 81 percent of men’s wages (See 2005 U.S. Department of Labor report.)These statistics do not derive from various salaries from different job positions that men and women hold; instead, they come from a survey of salaries that men and women earn for the exact same job position and the exact same job responsibilities.One of the reasons women are paid less money for the same work, is that women are paid based on gender stereotypes.

One of the most common stereotypes is that “women don’t need equal pay because they are married.” (See Your Rights in the Workplace at p. 7/34.) The husband is often thought of as the breadwinner and the wife’s salary is often seen as simply a supplement to the husband’s salary, and is thus justified to be a lower amount. While causes of the gender pay gap are complex and also include work and family choices (such as women choosing to take time off to raise children), data on the dramatically lower recognition of women in domains where their talents and achievements are equal to men’s imply there is a tendency to undervalue a woman’s work and contributions. (See Pay: The Gender Gap.) Further, “in a study of more than 900 senior-level women and men from Fortune 1000 companies (it was found) that women and men have equal desires to have the CEO job.” (See Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities? Catalyst 2004.)

Gender stereotyping also leads to resulting discrimination in employer hiring, firing and promotional practices. For example, less than sixteen percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are women, and less than two percent of Fortune 500 and 1000 CEOs are women. (See Stereotyping Contributes to the Stark Gender Gap in U.S. Business Leadership.) A recent study shows that one of the reasons that women do not get promoted to such powerful professional positions is because stereotypes in the workplace pose “serious challenges to women’s career advancement.” (See Gender Stereotypes Block Women’s Advancement.) Stereotypes that impede women’s advancement include “a woman’s job is only supposed to supplement a man’s,” “women are not aggressive enough,” and “women are not as good at problem solving.” (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, p. 11.)

Further, studies show that women are often stereotyped as the ones who “take care” while men are stereotyped as the ones who “take charge,” the latter being a notion more connected to prerequisite behaviors for top-level job positions. However, in an analysis based on over 40 studies, leadership researches have found that very little differences actually exist between women’s and men’s leadership (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, p. 9.) These stereotypes are holding qualified women back from positions that they deserve and would succeed in.

Gender stereotyping also leads to sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. A common stereotype is that women are sexual objects and types of harassment include offensive sexual innuendos, misogynist humor, physical encounters, and even rape. (See Your Rights in the Workplace at p. 8/2.) These types of behavior can lead to discomfort, job loss and forced resignation.

Stereotypes against pregnant women and mothers, such as “women just want to be moms and don’t want long term jobs,” and “women don’t devote as much time to work when they have children,” also lead to discrimination against women in the workplace.It is not uncommon for a woman to take a temporary leave of absence for her pregnancy and to subsequently return to work and be forced to work in a less prestigious and lower paying position even though she wanted to maintain her hours and responsibilities.

Qualified women are not receiving the pay and job positions that they deserve. Gender stereotyping and its resulting discrimination is a huge problem for women and a barrier to their success. After much lobbying, Congress has provided some relief to the problem. Notably, in 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act which requires employers to pay all employees equal wages for equal work, regardless of their gender. (Equal Pay Act of 1963.) Congress also passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, among other things, prohibits discrimination in employment for hiring, firing, and promotions on the basis of gender. (See Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) The Supreme Court has emphasized that gender stereotyping is an illegal form of discrimination under Title VII (See Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989)). In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted in order to protect women from pregnancy discrimination. (See Pregnancy Discrimination Act.)

While this legislation is a good start to providing equal treatment for women and men in the workplace, courts often do not interpret such legislation to provide adequate relief for women who bring gender stereotype and discrimination suits against their employers. In some circumstances, courts provide relief for victims of gender stereotyping and discrimination, but in many cases, it’s simply too difficult to prove that gender stereotyping took place. Gender stereotyping is “almost never found in the form of a smoking gun. Instead, it takes a more subtle yet pervasive form.” (See Your Rights in the Workplace at p. 7/33.) Thus, it’s extremely difficult to prove that employer decisions, such as to assign a raise or promote an individual, are based on conscious, or even unconscious, gender stereotypes that they hold.

Other cases, however, clearly seem to reflect gender stereotyping and discrimination, but the courts still fail to provide relief for the discriminated individual. For example, in a recent case, an employer had a grooming policy that required its female employees to wear an extensive amount of make up, wear nail polish and have their hair teased and curled at all times. Men, however, simply had to keep their hair and nails trimmed. (See Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Company, 444 F.3d 1104, 1107 (2006).) Title VII requires that both men and women be treated equally under employer policies. (See Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

Clearly, this policy did not treat both genders equally—it required women (and not men) to endure a very time consuming beautification process, and further, it perpetuated gender stereotypes pertaining to women, their beauty and sexuality. After refusing to wear such extensive make up, the employee was fired; but the court did not grant relief for the seemingly discriminated employee, and instead held that the employer’s policy did not constitute illegal gender stereotyping (See Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Company, 444 F.3d 1104 (2006).)

Even with progress in the legislature and in the courts, gender stereotyping and its resulting discrimination is still a significant roadblock to women’s success in the workplace. Women still hold a very small percentage of top-level professional positions (See Stereotyping Contributes to the Stark Gender Gap in U.S. Business Leadership.) Further, stereotyping and discrimination does not only affect women in top-level positions. For example, in California, the average 25-year-old woman who works full-time until she retires at age 65 will earn over $500,000 less than the average working man. (Gender Equity: An Asian Pacific Islander Perspective.) Because such discriminatory work environments still exist even though there is legislature and courts that are supposed to protect against such negative environments, other important measures must be taken to eliminate the stereotypes.

First, and foremost, educating managers and employers is important. Because many people can stereotype without any intention to do so, educating managers, employers and other personnel is crucial. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 28.) Successful educational programs include educating individuals about stereotypes and equipping them with skills to self-monitor their perceptions. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 27.)

Other programs include teaching employees at all levels about stereotypes, and placing employees in gender-diversified groups in order to maximize exposure to employees of other genders –an experience that can help change their preconceived notions and eliminate stereotyping. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 28.)

Another way to help reduce gender stereotyping in the workplace is to implement objective performance evaluation standards, with explicit rules elucidating how evaluation criteria are weighed. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 26.)It is also suggested to implement a system of “checks and balances” to help reduce gender stereotyping and discrimination.For example, giving raises, promotions and hiring decisions should not be based on the opinion of a single person and should be checked by others.

Finally, gender stereotypes can be reduced by portraying images that contradict such stereotypes. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 27.) For example, Georgia-Pacific is a company in the manufacturing industry— a stereotypically masculine field. In order to counteract the stereotype that women may not be as adequate in such job positions, the company offers an annual achievement award to recognize successful women in the field. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 27.) This award has wide-exposure in the company and is based on very strict criteria and high standards in order to maintain its legitimacy. Such standards ensure that the award is a powerful demonstration of women’s contributions. (See Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed at p. 29.)

Gender stereotyping leads to discrimination that unfairly provides challenges to women’s success in the workplace. Legislature and courts are not providing enough relief to eliminate the problem and thus companies need to implement programs to help stop it. And if equity and fairness among genders in the workplace isn’t enough reason to influence companies to change, then this article will close with a final thought by Ilene Lang of Catalyst pertaining to the underlying economics of the situation:

Ultimately, it’s the companies that suffer. Developing and retaining the best talent is key to remaining competitive in the global business world…until we break the spell of stereotyping, companies will continue to sub-optimize women and lose a vital talent pool—one they, frankly cannot afford to ignore.

(See Gender Stereotypes Block Women’s Advancement).

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.