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Gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal. To deal with it successfully requires documenting the problem, then following company and legal procedures for reporting it.
Gender Discrimination Defined
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says gender discrimination exists if an employer bases "any aspect of employment" on the worker's gender. Examples of such aspects of employment include:
- Hiring and firing
- Pay or fringe benefits.
- Job assignments and promotions.
Sexual harassment also is a form of gender discrimination. Harassment includes pressure to sleep with a supervisor, insulting someone because of his gender, and many other actions. One occasional remark may not be illegal — it has to be frequent and severe enough to create a hostile work environment.
Discrimination based on pregnancy, or the possibility that you may become pregnant, also is a form of gender discrimination.
State laws sometimes offer stronger or broader protection against discrimination than the federal government. The Nolo legal website has a page linking to laws for all 50 states.
Building a Case
The outcome of gender discrimination cases often comes down to circumstantial evidence, unless the accused openly admits to being biased. Before you report your allegations to your boss, the human-resources department or to a government agency, it helps to write down the facts:
- Your specific issue -- for example, that your boss denied you a promotion based on your gender, or pressured you to sleep with him.
- When the incident occurred. If you're complaining about sexual harassment, there probably will be multiple incidents.
- Why you believe it's discrimination. If you were denied a promotion, for instance, you could cite as evidence that you were qualified for the job, but the company picked someone of a different gender with inferior qualifications.
- Any specific statements that support your case -- for example, that your manager assumed you wouldn't want the job after you had a baby.
In sexual harassment cases, anyone who's uncomfortable about the behavior can claim to be a harassment victim, not just the target.
Reporting to the Boss
If you have an employee handbook, see if it includes guidelines on how to report discrimination or harassment. If not, talk to HR about the proper procedures — or to your boss, if your employer's too small to have a human-resources department.
When you make the report, do so in writing. Keep a copy. If things go south later, a written record proves what you said and what supporting information you provided. The report should be concise and stick to the facts. Keep a running account of any subsequent conversations with HR, or any responses the department gives you.
Be specific in your report. Don't just say someone's decision or words were "inappropriate," use "discrimination" or "harassment" if those words apply. These are powerful legal terms that put more pressure on your employer to respond.
Going to the Government
If your company doesn't handle your complaint fairly, take it to the government. You can report to your state office in charge of discrimination complaints — look for it on your state website — or go to the EEOC. File in person at any of the agency's field offices around the country, or send your complaint by mail. The most you can do by phone is give the EEOC the basic information, which it will forward to the nearest field office.
You can't file an EEOC complaint online, but the agency does have an online tool for determining whether the EEOC is the right agency to turn to.
Reporting the case to a government agency is a necessary first step before you can file a lawsuit against the company, if you need to take it that far.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sex-Based Discrimination
- Workplace Fairness: Sex/Gender Discrimination
- Nolo: How Do I Prove Sex Discrimination?
- Nolo: Your Rights Against Worksplace Discrimination and Harassment
- Zatuchni & Associates: Have You Been Discriminated Against at Work?
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: How to File a Charge
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: EEOC Assessment System
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.