Chances are, if you're a female worker, you’ve encountered gender discrimination. It can be overt, such as sexual harassment, getting fired because you’re pregnant, or being paid less than men. It can also be more subtle, such as being passed over for a promotion in favor of a male colleague, not being hired into a historically male occupation or not getting offered career-enhancing assignments because you’re seen as being on the “mommy track.”
The good news is that new laws protecting women in the workplace continue to reach governors' desks every year. You are allowed to assert your rights, to fight gender discrimination and any retaliation that results from speaking up.
1. Harassment: Bad behavior doesn’t belong at work
According to a 2017 study by Gender & Society, the lost productivity of each sexual harassment victim amounts to as much as $22,500 a year. With harassment affecting the bottom line, more forward-thinking companies have invited employees to become part of the solution by instituting “bystander intervention” training.
Following #MeToo, more employers adopted harassment training, but training works best when companies commit to changing their culture and making employees partners in the process. Bystander intervention training empowers male and female employees to identify and respond to inappropriate actions or comments. Employee working groups can help identify issues and propose solutions, and follow-up processes can track outcomes of new policies and practices.
If you don’t understand your company’s harassment complaint process, talk to your supervisor. At the very least, policies should encourage employees to immediately report when they witness inappropriate behavior and allow them to demand prompt investigation without fearing retaliation. The procedures should also support the alleged harasser’s right to be heard and investigated without a rush to judgment.
A workplace culture that condones or ignores harassment -- especially one that celebrates locker room talk and language -- only encourages continued bad behavior. You can join the movement to redeem the workplace by helping your employer define expectations, create behavior guidelines and incentive programs, and reinforce appropriate behaviors.
2. Opportunities: Your job has nothing to do with your gender
Outside of the male sports teams, nobody has the right to tell you that you can’t do a job because of your gender.
Women have historically been passed over for promotions and encountered barriers to entering certain occupations, but things are changing, from STEM programs for girls to engineering programs at women’s colleges. A handful of technology and manufacturing companies boast women executives, but women who enter predominantly male occupations are still subject to tokenism, from pressure to perform better to social isolation.
If you believe that you are being denied equal opportunity, promotions, or equal pay, you need to take action. Gather your resume and performance evaluations, get copies of your paystubs, ask your employer to provide a salary survey, ask your coworkers what they are making, write a chronology of events addressing your efforts to obtain fair opportunity, promotions, and/or equal pay, and consult a lawyer.
If you believe you were denied a job, promotion, or some other opportunity because of your gender, take action to change the corporate culture. Celebrate the achievements of women and minorities so that others are encouraged to reach further and aim higher.
3. Pay: What you make doesn’t depend on your chromosomes
Women earn, on average, less than men for similar work, and minority women earn even less. This is against the law. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 abolished wage disparity based on gender when both males and females are working jobs that require “equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions.”
Pay disparity continues to exist, however. It starts with the hiring process. Companies just need to know that you’re qualified to do the job for which you’re applying. Requesting your salary history lets them justify paying you less than your male coworkers, continuing a historic pattern of pay inequity against women.
Don’t share salary history with prospective employers unless there’s a compelling reason to do so. In California, employers can no longer ask for salary history. Don’t accept less pay than equally qualified workers doing the same or similar work. Ask your male colleagues what they’re making. If the company is willing to pay them so much for the work you do, it should be paying you that same amount.
4. Parenting: Having kids doesn’t make you less qualified
Parenting should never be a job disqualifier. Some employers wrongly believe that if you're a mom, you're not as dedicated to your job as the guy sitting at the desk next to yours. Not true and not fair. If anything, parents are often better at managing their time, resolving conflicts and keeping things in perspective.
If you believe you’ve been treated differently simply because you have children, report your concerns to HR or file a complaint with the appropriate state or federal agency.
5. Pregnancy: Discrimination should not be expected when you’re expecting
If you’re expecting, you can’t be discriminated against over your pregnancy. The Pregnancy Disability Act of 1978 bars discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." Employers with fewer than 15 employees are exempt, and employers are not obligated to provide medical coverage for elective abortions unless the mother's life is threatened. They are required to provide disability and sick leave for women recovering from an abortion.
Your employer must provide reasonable accommodations during your pregnancy, including modifying job assignments if required by your medical restrictions. In general, you should not lose benefits, pay or job opportunities because you’re pregnant.
The Bottom Line
If you observe behavior in your workplace that doesn’t seem right, don’t ignore it. The longer victims or witnesses wait to take action, the harder it will be to remember and capture what happened. Document as much as you can as soon as you can. You can now download mobile phone apps that will walk you through the documentation process and save your observations until you need them.
When a violation is verified, employer discipline must be prompt and proportionate to the behavior. Employers should ensure that discipline is consistent and doesn’t give or create the appearance of undue favor to any employee.
Genie Harrison is a Los Angeles lawyer representing, among her clients, employees discriminated against or harassed in the workplace. She is the creator of “Incident Genie,” an app that helps employees document, timestamp and save accounts of illegal workplace actions.