Laws Prohibiting Employment Discrimination Based on Sex and Gender

Here's what to do if you're experiencing workplace discrimination based on sex or gender—and what kinds of damages you can receive in a lawsuit.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against employees based on sex, which includes pregnancy and related medical conditions, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Private employers with at least 15 employees have to comply with Title VII, a federal law; smaller employers may be subject to a state law that prohibits sex discrimination.

Employers that violate Title VII can be ordered to pay lost wages, court costs, attorney fees, and more.

What Is Sex Discrimination in the Workplace?

An employer who treats employees differently because of their sex—which includes their pregnancy or related medical condition, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientationis discriminating on the basis of sex.

For example, an employer who won't promote women to management positions because he believes they aren't assertive enough to lead other employees is discriminating, as is a manager who selects female employees for layoffs because he believes male employees are more likely to be the sole breadwinners in their families.

Prohibited Conduct

Title VII prohibits gender discrimination in every aspect of employment, including:

  • hiring
  • compensation and benefits
  • assignment, or classification of employees
  • transfer, promotion, layoff, or recall
  • job advertisements and recruitment
  • testing
  • use of company facilities
  • training and apprenticeship programs
  • time off, and
  • other terms and conditions of employment.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination under Title VII. Harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to offensive, unwelcome conduct, based on her sex, which is pervasive or severe enough to affect the terms and conditions of her employment.

For example, a manager who requires female employees to go out with him in order to get plum assignments or promotions is committing sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can also take the form of a hostile working environment, such as a workplace where male employees tell dirty jokes, send email messages with pornographic images, or touch and fondle female coworkers.

Other Laws That Prohibit Sex Discrimination

Title VII isn't the only statute that outlaws sex discrimination. Most states also have laws prohibiting sex discrimination, and some of them apply to smaller employers.

In addition, two other federal laws prohibit specific kinds of sex discrimination:

  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) amended Title VII to make clear that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. (Learn more about pregnancy discrimination.)
  • The Equal Pay Act requires employers to pay men and women equally for doing equal work.

Damages for Workplace Sex Discrimination

Under Title VII, an employer who is found liable for sex discrimination can be ordered to pay damages and provide injunctive reliefto take action to remedy the discrimination. Penalties include:

  • back pay (compensation for wages lost due to discrimination, such as if an employee was wrongfully terminated or denied a promotion)
  • out of pocket costs (for example, if an employee was wrongfully terminated and had to pay for health insurance)
  • injunctive relief, such as reinstatement or promotion
  • front pay (money intended to compensate the employee for wages lost from the date of judgment going forward, if she cannot be reinstated right away or the workplace has become so poisoned that reinstatement isn't a viable option)
  • court costs, and
  • attorney fees.

In addition, Title VII allows for an award of damages for pain and suffering (sometimes called emotional distress or compensatory damages) and punitive damages (intended to punish the employer for wrongdoing). Together, these two types of damages are capped at an amount between $50,000 and $300,000, depending on the size of the employer.

If state law also prohibits sex discrimination, it might offer additional damages. For example, some states allow employees to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages without limit. Because these damages often make up the lion's share of the employee's remedy, it often makes sense to sue under state law in this situation.

What to Do If You're Experiencing Workplace Sex Discrimination or Harassment

If you're being discriminated against at work based on your sex or gender, it's important to take action.

Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself—and hopefully prevent workplace discrimination against yourself and others in the future.

  • Document incidents. Keep a detailed record of any discriminatory incidents, including dates, times, locations, people involved, and a description of what happened. This documentation will be valuable if you decide to pursue a complaint.
  • Review your company's policies. Familiarize yourself with your company's discrimination policies and procedures, which should be outlined in the employee handbook or available through your human resources department. Learn your company's process for reporting discrimination.
  • Consider talking to the perpetrator. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can address the issue directly with the person responsible for the discrimination. They may not be aware of the impact of their actions, and a conversation might lead to a resolution.
  • Report the discrimination. If discussing the issue with the perpetrator is not effective or is not safe, report the discrimination to your supervisor, manager, or HR department, following your company's established procedures. Be prepared to provide your documentation and any evidence you have.
  • File a complaint. Whether on your own or with the help of an attorney, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the state agency responsible for handling discrimination claims. They will investigate your complaint and may take legal action on your behalf.
  • File a lawsuit. If the government agency fails to take action, contact an attorney to file an employment discrimination lawsuit.

Contact an Attorney

If you believe you have been discriminated against based on sex, you should speak to an employment lawyer right away. If you decide to sue, you must first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)and the time limits for doing so are fairly short. An attorney can explain your options and help you decide how to proceed, based on the facts of your case.

An attorney can also help you make important strategic decisions along the way, such as whether to try to negotiate a settlement with your employer and whether to sue under federal law, state law, or both.

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