ISM Number Two: SexISM

by Michael Haberman on August 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Sexism is the second part of my series on ISM’s in Human Resources in the United States. According to Wikipedia “Sexism, a term coined in the mid-20th century,[1] refers to the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other.”   (Click here for a great discussion of the totality of the meaning of the word SEXISM.) In the US the term sexism is generally taken to mean men see themselves as superior to women, exhibiting a sexist or chauvinistic attitude toward women and their place in society. Though this is just one interpretation of the term it has been generally been taken to mean that women have had a history of being discriminated against in the workplace. However, the 20th century saw a number of laws passed that moved to lessen or eliminate the discrimination.

One of the early laws to do so was establishing that women had the right to vote. The movement to establish this right was called Women’s Suffrage and more information can be found HERE. Although this was not really a workplace right it did set the standard for later movement.

One major, and early law regarding the workplace, was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act in the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This law was passed to address the issue of women making only $0.58 for every $1.00 that men were making. The law requires that men and women doing the same work that requires substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and is performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment, receive the same pay. There are exceptions for seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production, and any other factor other than sex (gender.) This law required of HR departments to focus on the work done, not titles, and to insure that the same rate of pay was paid if the jobs met the standards were met.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the next law to deal with sexism in the workplace as it did with racism. Originally sex (gender) was not one of the protected catagories in the law. Sex was inserted as an attempt to defeat the law. In the early 1960’s the make up of Congress was mostly males, so the opponents of Civil Rights attempted to defeat the law by sticking gender in the law. Well, as we well know it did not work! Sex discrimination became illegal, as did sexual harassment, and today all HR departments need to be aware of situations in which discrimination and harrassment occurred or could occur and take corrective action. All good HR people know this.

The next step in dealing with sexism in the workplace was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1977, an amendment to Title VII. This made it illegal to discriminate against pregnant women in all terms and matters of employment. Even prohibiting employers from barring women from doing high risk jobs that could endanger the development of the fetus. Employers are required to point out the dangers but cannot bar a woman from performing that job if she is qualified. Many companies still struggle with this issue. Even women managers have difficulty with this. I have encountered female managers who do not want to hire a candidate who is pregnant knowing that they run the risk of productivity issues or the possibility of loss of the employee after birth, just as I have encountered male managers feeling the same way. I would be interested to know if any of you have encountered a similar dilemma. How did you deal with it?

Since these three big laws several others have been passed that deal with the issue of sexism. The Family and Medical Leave Act to an extent touches sex discrimination by providing protection to allow for the birth of a child, a benefit few men initially used, and certainly not to the extent the female employee giving birth is likely to have done. The most recent law passed that deal with sexism is the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed earlier in 2009. It goes back to the pay issue, not as a revision of the FLSA, but as a revision of Title VII. It changed the interpretation of when an act of pay discrimination can be reported. It has major implications for recordkeeping, how pay decisions are documented and how long a company is liable for its actions. The Ohio Employer Law blog has a very good discussion of these implications. The Compensation Cafe also has a very good discussion.

Coming down the pike is proposed legislation called the Paycheck Fairness Act. I posted earlier about it here and here. It brings back the very nasty issue of comparable worth, a concept that was rejected many years ago as unworkable. It has not yet been passed, and may not in the current legislative year, but it is definately on the agenda for the current administration. So educate yourself.

All of this pay legislation, both passed and proposed, is based upon the concept of discrimination in pay based upon sex (gender.) Statistics show that currently women make $0.75 for every $1.00 that men make. Ann Bares at Compensation Force presents research that may cast a different light on this subject. This research shows that compensation differences are not as simple as JUST sex discrimination. You can read the research and make your own decisions.

As a close to this, already too long, post I will just say that sexism is not a simple subject. Sexual harassment is a two way street. Reverse discrimination, where women receive preferential treatment, exists in many forms. Fathers in divorce situations are frequently not given the same rights as mothers, even in situations where it is evident the father would be the better care-giver and provider. Society allows Women only events, groups and gyms yet protest loudly against men only groups. Examples include: Silicon Valley Women In Human Resources, Executive Women in Chamber of Commerce groups, women only workout gyms, etc. I can only imagine the outrage that would be expressed by Silicon Valley Men in Human Resources. Yes I understand the issues of trying to overcome the past, but to my way of thinking discrimination is discrimination.
Will sexism go away? Nope, no way. It is even less likely to go away than racism. Eventually everyone could be the same racial mix, but there is no poss
ibility for us to be the same sex. So it is something we will have to learn to deal with as a society. But as a workplace we have the responsibilty to minimize it as much as possible.
Discuss your trials and tribulations of dealing with sexism in the workplace by leaving a comment here.

Next week: AGEISM

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