The young doctor masked up and took her place around the operating table with the other male physicians at a major hospital in the Northeast. The lead surgeon scanned all four of his team members and said, “Good morning, Gentlemen.” The young woman’s eyes arched. She said, “Good morning Dr. Taylor,” hoping to get appropriate recognition. The lead surgeon ignored her and went on with the operation. When she brought it up with the department chair, he told her she was being too sensitive and over-reacting to the situation. Her male counterparts didn’t seem to understand or care that she might have felt dismissed, invisible and insignificant. To some, this might seem like a harmless event, but it’s symptomatic of an attitude that often persists under the radar in many different workplaces—even in 2021.
What’s wrong with this picture? Under federal law gender discrimination in which an employee is treated differently or unfairly based on their gender is illegal. A study published in February, 2021 concluded that female academic internal medicine hospitalists routinely encounter gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment. Among 18 institutions surveyed, women frequently reported inappropriate touch, sexual remarks, gestures and suggestive looks. And female doctors, more than male doctors, reported that their gender negatively impacted their career opportunities.
In a second scenario, the tenure and promotion committee sat around the Dean of Education’s conference table evaluating dossiers of applicants for tenure and promotion. As they scrutinized a female faculty member’s credentials, one of the male full professors commented, “She’s an old maid. Wonder why she’s never been married?” No one spoke up, and the highly-qualified faculty member was never notified of the discrimination that denied her tenure and promotion. She was fired from her position, despite the fact that the prominent university clearly states it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender.
What’s wrong with this picture? Federal law prohibits a woman from being denied a promotion because of her gender. Another new study published in February, 2021 found that women who show promise early in their academic careers have fewer leadership prospects in the workplace. “Our research clearly illustrates the barriers that exist for women, especially mothers in the workplace,” said Jill Yavorsky, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who co-led the study. “At the same time, given that even men with low grades go on to attain higher leadership roles than women, this study highlights perhaps the lack of barriers that men face in securing greater leadership opportunities.”
Gender Discriminatory Practices In The Workplace
The story of the young female doctor and professor are real-life cases that occur in boardrooms, operating rooms and university conference rooms around the country on a regular basis. Shocking, perhaps, but true. Few will deny we have come far in workplace equality, but we still have a long way to go until women are fully recognized equally to men for their contributions in the workforce. How does an organization build a team when colleagues are marginalized and discredited because of their gender, race or sexual orientation?
It’s not uncommon for pregnant or nursing women to be fired while taking time off for childbearing (see my post on the subject here). A landmark Baylor University study found that pregnancy discrimination has a negative impact on the mother’s and baby’s health. Pregnancy discrimination was linked to increased levels of postpartum depressive symptoms for mothers and lower birth weights, lower gestational ages and increased numbers of doctor visits for babies. Another study found that female workers exposed to sexual harassment in the workplace are at greater risk of suicide (see my post on workplace sexual harassment here).
It’s also not unusual for women to receive less pay, fewer benefits, fewer opportunities or to be passed up for jobs or promotions for which they are well qualified. Gender discrimination is explicitly outlawed in the United States under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religions, gender or national origin. Unfortunately, anti-discrimination laws don’t always protect women against discriminatory practices, especially subtle interactions or nuanced body mannerisms where they are treated differently. Gender bias persists even in 2021 affecting women, women of color and transgender women.
Steps You Can Take
A CareerBuilder survey reported that 72% of sexual discrimination victims continue to keep quiet for fear of reprisal from their employers. So what do you do if your employer discriminates against you? You can’t fire your boss. You can’t take over the company and restructure it, but you can take a number of other actions.
- Know your rights. Find out your company’s policy in regard to gender discrimination from employee handbooks or company policy manuals.
- Voice your concern in a firm manner to the person directly responsible for the discrimination or notify your human resources officer, supervisor or manager of the discrimination or harassment.
- Keep a log of events. Note the time, location and persons involved. Write a detailed description of the event and explain how it has interfered with your ability to do your job.
- Do not destroy any notes or objects used to harass you. Keep them in a safe place.
- Contact an employment attorney, if all else fails.
Steps Managers Can Take
Human resource officers and managers are in a unique position to provide the support that employees need to address gender discrimination and harassment by taking these steps:
- Establish a workplace culture with zero tolerance for gender discrimination.
- Provide flexible schedules to accommodate prenatal appointments and/or medical conditions related to pregnancy.
- Keep information channels open and the employee in the loop, specifically with regards to work-family benefits and expectations leading up to leave/returning from leave.
- Normalize breastfeeding in the workplace.
- Keep dialogue open with an employee about the kind of support a discriminated employee might need.
- Offer education about the legal rights of employees of discrimination and make sure these rights are clearly stated in the company handbook.
- Conduct onsite training sessions to educate employees about gender discrimination, its effects and how to prevent it. Navex Global is just one example of a firm that offers sexual harassment training courses to organizations to educate their employees.
If you’re a leader of an organization, it’s in your company’s best interest to address the legal responsibilities to which you adhere in regard to gender discrimination. If allowed to continue, the toxicity and dissatisfaction hurts the company’s bottom line. Workplace performance eventually drops, and the organization’s integrity is compromised. Minimizing, covering up or turning your head the other way, in effect, creates a toxic work culture for all employees. The company becomes a revolving door for workers, and it will be more difficult to attract and retain talented employees who can always find a mentally healthier and more supportive work environment that makes accommodations for gender equality for all workers.