Sex Discrimination

Cindi Trahan tries to joke away her stress from on-the-job sex discrimination and harassment — and the death threats she said she got for complaining. An air traffic controller, she said she had to manage in-bound 747s while fending off lewd propositions from her married manager. So unnerving and distracting were his attentions that she worried the planes she was tracking might be in danger.

Sex discrimination is the last thing Diana Brady thought would bring her down. After all, she worked for a drug company that specialized in birth control pills, vaginal creams and other women’s products. Although this was the 1990s, Brady said her male bosses took credit for a computer project she had successfully completed — and then demoted her when she complained.

Years of insults and verbal abuse took their toll on Anne Mohan, one of the few women working in an East Coast transit company. Her manager, whom she said wanted her overtime shifts for himself, barraged her with profanities during the many hours the two worked alone together, which he’d never done to men who worked the overtime shifts. She was terrified to go to work, couldn’t sleep, and lost her concentration. And that was just the beginning. Reporting her boss just made everything worse — it eventually forced her into early retirement, a move that cost her a substantial chunk of her pension but preserved her sanity.

These stories remain all too common, even though sex discrimination has been illegal in the United States for over 40 years. The victims and their families pay a huge price — physically, emotionally, and often financially. So do their employers. Job performance, morale, and productivity decline, and unless the proper policies are in place and are followed, legal costs can mount as well.

Ultimately, employers who don’t deal effectively and immediately with sex discrimination can wind up paying millions — either to lawyers they must hire to fend off lawsuits, or to pay settlements to wronged women.

Where sex bias occurs

In 2010, the drug firm Novartis Pharmaceutical Corp. lost a class-action suit filed by female sales representatives over pay, promotion and pregnancy policies. The court ordered Novartis to pay $250 million in punitive damages. The award covers nearly 5,600 women who were eligible to apply.

Sex discrimination is an equal opportunity offender, cropping up in private companies, schools and universities, and government agencies. Among those that have been targeted are Stanford University, the Fireman’s Fund, PETCO, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2008, more than 28,000 sex discrimination complaints are lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). That doesn’t include charges made to state and local fair employment agencies. Damages paid through EEOC complaints alone totaled more than $109 million in 2008.

Legally, it’s entirely up to employers to stop sex discrimination, according to Brad Seligman, a longtime antidiscrimination attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area and now head of the Impact Fund, a nonprofit foundation in Berkeley that supports efforts to identify and stop discrimination. In fact, for certain kinds of discrimination, including sexual harassment, the law says that not only must employers stop the harassment when someone complains, they have a legal duty to prevent it, Seligman said.

“Under federal law, there is no liability for a supervisor who discriminates, but a supervisor’s conduct results in the employer being responsible. The buck stops with the employer,” said Seligman. “As a practical matter, employers who don’t control discrimination in their workplace can face draconian consequences.” The sex discrimination suits he has pursued have netted victims $107 million from the Lucky store chain and $250 million from State Farm Insurance.

What is sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination comes in many forms, and woman aren’t always the victims. About 15 percent of complaints come from men. Simply put, sex discrimination occurs when people are treated differently because of their gender. Some examples:

Pay disparity. This is when a woman is paid less than a man for doing the same work. On average, women in the United States are paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to men (up from 59 cents in the early 1980s.) This can be a matter of job categories. But within the same organization, if a man and a woman are paid significantly different amounts for doing the same work with the same expertise, the pay equity issues become glaring.

Hiring and firing. When a woman seeking a job is passed over in favor of a less-qualified man, or a woman is laid off, but men who are less senior are not, this can be discrimination.

Promotions. Often women are passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified men. This pattern has kept many women out of upper management jobs (in 2006, only ten Fortune 500 CEOs were women); being female and being prevented from advancing into the top ranks is known as hitting the “glass ceiling.”

Sexual harassment. If your boss says you have to have sex with him or her (or engage in any intimate contact) or you’ll lose your job, shift, parking spot, or anything else, that’s harassment. If your co-workers’ or supervisor’s sexual comments or explicit photos make work a hostile environment for you, that’s harassment, too.

Pregnancy discrimination. If you are treated differently for being pregnant or prevented from getting certain benefits allowed to you by law, that’s discrimination.

Blaming the victims

It’s essential to deal firmly and fairly with offenders and to make sure employees know what discrimination is and what to do if they experience it, say groups like 9 to 5, the Wisconsin-based national organization for working women.

But often, as with Diane Brady, Ann Mohan, and Cindi Trahan, women who report discrimination are the ones who suffer. Retaliation is common. And frequently, employers blame the victims. Women may have recourse to the federal EEOC, state and local authorities and, ultimately, the courts. But sex discrimination and harassment sometimes comes down to a “he-said, she-said” situation.

Brady fought her case for eight years before losing in court. The stress disabled her and the lawyers’ fees drained her finances. “I lost everything,” she said. But things are looking up for her, fortunately. She married and moved away to a house on 30 acres in rural Tennessee, where she’s helping her husband start a small business. She’s feeling much healthier these days.

Mohan simply asked for a shift change to get her away from her harasser, a co-worker who was her senior. She was stunned by her manager’s response to her complaint: He threatened to punish her as well as the harasser. So Mohan hired a lawyer to protect herself. Her bosses moved her harasser away — but then brought him back. She went to court, lost, and took early retirement, paying a pension penalty.

Trahan knew other women air traffic controllers were being harassed, too, and that “fighting alone makes you just a ‘whining female.'” After she complained, she said a supervisor shoved her and came to her home when he thought she was alone. She received death threats and was shunned at work: “Snitch” was scrawled on her car in the parking lot.

Finally, she and four others sued the Federal Aviation Administration. Some women air traffic controllers who have been harassed refuse to say so in public or to join the suit, fearing retaliation, Trahan said.

None of the women wanted to sue. Most such suits fail and in the end do not correct the problem. But all three said that given what had happened, they had no choice — and they believe their tenacity has forced their own employers to take sex discrimination and harassment complaints more seriously.

“They started making changes even while I was still there,” said Mohan, who left her job in 1995.

Document your case

Now involved in answering 9 to 5’s hotline, all three women advise victims to know their rights, consult with a support group, and explore all possible resources before speaking up. If you do decide to take legal action, Equal Rights Advocates advises you to document your case by keeping careful records, including the dates, places, times, and possible witnesses to any discrimination. The organization also recommends that you ask coworkers who’ve been similarly treated to write statements supporting your charges; keep a paper trail of complaints to administrators or supervisors; make use of your company’s complaint or grievance procedure; and involve your union, if you have one, in the grievance process. (Don’t store these records at work, of course.) If all else fails, get advice on filing a discrimination complaint with the appropriate agency. Brady says that if managers simply do their jobs, sex discrimination will fade into history. She urges them to educate themselves about what discrimination is and “be strong enough to handle situations correctly — even if it’s painful and more difficult in the short run.”

“I think every one of our battles brings us a step closer,” said Mohan. “I look at my nieces, who are 13 and 16. I hope that by the time they’re working this won’t be happening anymore.”

Further Resources

9 to 5 (National Association of Working Women)
A national, grassroots membership organization dedicated to strengthening women’s struggle for economic justice. It has members in every state.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Equal Rights Advocates

The Impact Fund
A foundation providing funding, technical assistance, and representation for civil rights litigation.

U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau


Novartis Fined $250 Million in Sex Discrimination Suit. Reuters. May 19, 2010.

Swanson NG. Working women and stress. J Am Med Womens Assoc. 2000 Spring;55(2):76-9.

Sexual Orientation discrimination in the Workplace: A legal reference guide. National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law. 1999. Vol. 2, Issue 1

Roth, Louise Marie. Selling Women Short: Gender and Money on Wall Street. Princeton University Press. 2006.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sex-Based Discrimination. March 2008.

National Committee on Pay Equity. Questions and Answers on Pay Equity. 2006.

Sex-Based Charges. FY1997 – FY2008. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Quick Stats on Women Workers, 2008. United States Department of Labor.

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