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Soft Sexism and Discrimination in the Male-Dominated Workplace

When does sexism rise to the level of illegal workplace discrimination? According to a recent article in the Huffington Post, sexism happens in the workplace, but many women feel that they cannot find the right language to describe it. The kind of sexism that tends to be pervasive is not the stuff of sex discrimination claims brought in previous decades, but rather has taken a more insidious form. An article in New York Magazine describes it as “soft sexism” or “soft discrimination,” or simply as “the sexism you can’t quite prove.” As that article explains, it can be difficult to convince a colleague that what is taking place is indeed discrimination, and that there are negative consequences to that discrimination.

This kind of employment discrimination often shows itself in the language used in employee reviews, remarks around the office, and in a woman’s ability to get (or not get, as the case often may be) a performance-based raise or bonus. Can we hold colleagues and employers liable for this type of discrimination? Other examples may include being ridiculed for having a high voice or management’s pre conceived notions that women with family do not want to travel making them less attractive for promotion.

Understanding Sex-Based Discrimination at Work

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the definition of sex-based discrimination in the workplace is a pretty broad one that simply “involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex.” It can also involve, the EEOC explains, “treating someone less favorably because of his or her connection with an organization or group that is generally associated with people of a certain sex.”

And the EEOC makes clear that sex-based discrimination cannot play a role in any facet of employment, including but not limited to:

  • Hiring;
  • Firing;
  • Pay;
  • Job assignments;
  • Promotions;
  • Layoffs; and
  • Training.

Yet while the EEOC makes clear that such discrimination is illegal under Title VII, sometimes certain forms of workplace discrimination can be difficult to prove. And that is precisely what many women argue when it comes to putting a stop to soft discrimination on the job.

Protection Against Various Forms of Sex-Based Discrimination

What does it mean when someone refers to soft sexism or soft discrimination? To better understand, we should take a look at some examples. In the New York Magazine and Huffington Post articles, for instance, the following situations are linked to soft sexism:

  • Performance reviews often show signs of soft sexism, especially those that refer to a woman’s body in a job that has nothing to do with her body.

  • Soft sexism also seems to appear in performance reviews that cite a woman’s assertiveness—a characteristic that has not been traditionally valued among female employees. Specifically, the article cites performance reviews that disparage one woman’s “sharp elbows,” thereby preventing her promotion.

  • Work trips or retreats involving physical activities in which female employees saliently are not invited might be an indicator of sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

  • Employers sometimes refuse to promote women in general or to assign job titles that are in line with the work being done. While other reasons can exist for such actions, many women believe soft discrimination is at work.

As the articles questions, “what happens when the discrimination isn’t so blatant?” Surely, federal laws aim to protect against all forms of sex-based discrimination, regardless of whether they are blatant or less pronounced. But as the Huffington Post article intimates, it can be very difficult to win a discrimination case with some of the evidence we noted above.

However, just because a case is difficult to win does not mean that a female employee should think twice about filing a sex-based discrimination claim. A dedicated West Palm Beach employment discrimination lawyer can help. Contact Scott Wagner and Associates, P.A. to learn more about our services.

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Florida 561-653-0008 California 213-377-5200
* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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