When it comes to gender discrimination, it’s important to understand all of the implications of the law so you can keep your company legal and your employees happy.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against employees or applicants because of their sex in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment, such as promotions, raises, and other job opportunities.
But did you realize that if you require a female employee to dress in “girly” clothes, that you could be guilty of gender discrimination? Let’s take a look at what that means…
UNDERSTANDING HOW THIS WAS DECIDED
The Supreme Court Case that made this issue so clear-cut was Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.
Basically, the situation was that Ann Hopkins was the only woman of 88 candidates applying for a promotion to partner at Price Waterhouse accounting firm in 1982. She should have been a shoo-in since she had the best track record for generating new business and landing multi-million dollar contracts for the firm.
However, her promotion was put on hold after several male partners described her as being too “macho” and even went so far as to say that she was in need of a “charm school.” She was even told by one of them that she should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled and wear jewelry.“
So instead of accepting that, she filed a lawsuit that cited Title VII. She alleged that the decision not to promote her violated her right to be free of gender discrimination. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor.
WHAT DID THAT MEAN FOR PRICE WATERHOUSE?
While it may seem that this was a negative ruling for Price Waterhouse, they did win some small victory in the case. The court found that during the case, they were held to high of a standard of proof in rebutting Hopkins’ claims. So when the case was reheard in lower courts, they would not have to provide “clear and convincing evidence.” They would be held to an easier standard that would require them to provide a “preponderance” of evidence that her gender wasn’t a factor in their decision.
WHAT DID THIS RULING MEAN FOR YOU?
Fast forward a few years from that ruling in 2001 to 2015, and women have come a long way in defense of their rights compared to their male counterparts
While this is ultimately a good thing, it also means your female employees are more empowered to challenge you with a law suit when they feel they are being unfairly treated.
It’s important to make sure that your employees – especially those involved in hiring, firing, and job advancement understand the laws when it comes to gender discrimination. You need to make sure that you provide training so that they know that sex can’t be a part of the decision-making process.
THE IMPACT ON YOUR COMPANY DRESS CODE
You can – and should – still have a company dress code outlined in your employee handbook.
Based on previous lawsuits, the employer generally won the cases when they:
- Required both men and women to dress professionally.
- Required uniforms that were different for each sex as long as they are “suitable”
- Prohibited makeup for men, but required it for women
- Required short hair for men, but not for women
- Required suits for men, and dresses or skirts for women
Harrah’s Casino actually won the case where they required women to tease, curl or style their hair, wear stockings, and wear specific types of makeup – including lip color.
Employers generally lost cases when they:
- Required women to wear short skirts or sexually revealing uniforms if the men are not also required to
- In certain states – like California – when they tried to stop women from wearing pants
- The legal requirements around gender discrimination are still evolving, so more importantly than anything else, you need to make sure you stay on top of the laws and changes.
- Lean on your employee handbook to help communicate those changes to your staff and keep you safe from lawsuits.
- Require regular training for your employees.
- When in doubt, consult a lawyer before making a decision or implementing a new policy.