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Sex Discrimination in the Workplace: It’s Not Over After All These Years


Despite the fact that core civil rights protections against employment discrimination have been in place for decades, and despite the fact that women have entered the workplace in droves, mistreatment of women workers persists.1 Women still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men half a century after Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the first of a series of federal laws designed to ensure that women workers are treated equally. Pregnant workers, new mothers, and women working in traditionally male arenas face particularly acute discrimination.

Women who work in male-dominated sectors like shipping, police work, and baggage handling face different forms of pregnancy discrimination than do office workers. Many white-collar workers can expect to work through pregnancy without requiring any temporary job modifications apart from flexibility to attend doctors’ appointments. But jobs in male-dominated sectors — as well as some jobs in traditionally female sectors like home care, nursing, and waitressing — frequently involve lifting, standing for long periods, and the inability to take frequent breaks. Women who work in these types of jobs sometimes require minor, temporary adjustments when they are pregnant. Even though employers routinely grant adjustments of similar scope to non-pregnant workers, such as workers who are injured “on the job,” they often deny those same modifications to pregnant women, forcing them to take unpaid leave or exit the workplace entirely.

Employers’ policies toward breastfeeding mothers reflect an assumption that women, once they become mothers, should be home with their children. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently settled a case brought on behalf of a teacher in Colorado who was fired after she asserted her right to pump her breast milk on the job. Fortunately, the new health-care reform law — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — contains provisions requiring employers to give hourly employees reasonable unpaid breaks and to also provide a private place, other than a bathroom, to pump. How women are treated on the job is intricately linked to opportunities for achieving workplace equality.

Even today, many women claim that their employers still make personnel decisions based on gender stereotypes, like the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women work for “extra” money, rather than to support their families. Proving that individual decisions to pay women less than their male co-workers is motivated by discrimination is very difficult. While some women workers are turning to class action suits to challenge company-wide practices, the Supreme Court — in ruling on the claims of thousands of women workers at Wal-Mart around the country last year in the case of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes — made it more difficult for workers to use class actions to challenge systemic discrimination.

Discriminatory decisions — about remuneration and working conditions — are frequently hidden, sometimes even from the women who are the victims of the disparities. This was the case for Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who, for years, did not know that she was being paid less than her male colleagues at Goodyear & Tire Rubber Company. By the time she learned of the discrimination and brought suit, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was too late, despite decades of court decisions to the contrary. While Congress and President Barack Obama took steps toward correcting these injustices when they enacted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, more work remains to be done. Women’s rights activists, including my colleagues at the ACLU, are working to pass a bill called the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would prohibit retaliation against workers who ask about possible wage inequities and give women other tools to help close the persistent gender pay gap. Women won’t gain equal footing at work until we, as a society, are ready to call these practices discrimination, and force employers to abandon them.

1 In the mid-1950s, fewer than 40 percent of women ages 24-54 worked in the labor market, whereas by 2000 more than 70 percent did. See “Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work” by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, March 2, 2006. Legislative changes include the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage discrimination; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited sex discrimination in employment; and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which prohibited discrimination in employment based on pregnancy and related conditions.

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