History of Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Updated April 17, 2017

Women today enjoy employment opportunities and success their female ancestors could have hardly imagined, but shedding centuries of cultural discrimination and bias has been a long process. From ancient myths and creation stories, to organised religious subordination, women eventually began to recreate their role in modern society, and with the support and protection of federal law they began to reach toward genuine equality in the workplace.

A Woman's Place

Women's roles in early American life reflected those in existence in England. The egalitarian dream of equality did not extend to women, and married women, in particular, enjoyed few rights and the absence of financial freedom. Traditionally, women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers and lacked virtually any presence in the workforce. Before the development of medical schools and medical licensing procedures, many women found occupation as certain medical fields, such as obstetrics. As the 19th century neared a close, certain factors began to change the nature of traditional gender roles. The increasing prevalence of state schools led not only to further educational opportunities, it also led more and more women into teaching professions. Also, the industrial revolution caused a tremendous need for unskilled factory workers, and young women were deemed the perfect workforce for seamstress positions.

Early Legislation

Low pay, long hours and dangerous working conditions led to reform legislation in the early part of the 20th century. Many state regulations, although well intentioned, had a discriminatory effect on the employment of women, limiting the hours they could work, and providing mandatory breaks, leading many employers to view them as liabilities in terms of productivity and performance. Meanwhile, women were beginning to gain equal rights in other areas and seeking education at an increased rate. According to Women's International Center, by 1900, nearly 20 per cent of undergraduate degrees were obtained by women.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963

In 1963, the U.S. congress passed the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting the common practice of providing inferior compensation for women while working the same jobs as men. The law was important in stating the federal government's purpose in protecting women in the workplace, but it did nothing to prevent discrimination in hiring practices based solely on the basis of gender. By this period, secretarial jobs, primary education teaching and nursing jobs were dominated by women. Enforcing equal pay for equal work merely strengthened the stratification of occupational titles still dominated by men in the workplace.

The Fortunate Accident of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was about to be put to a vote, congressman Howard Smith of Virginia included a brief line that included women as a protected class against discrimination. The intention of Smith, who strongly opposed the bill, was to inhibit votes with the addition. The result was unexpected, and with the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, women could now legally seek recourse in cases of workplace discrimination. Initially, the EEOC expected to see mainly cases of racial discrimination, but gender discrimination cases made up 33 per cent of total charges filed in the first year, a number that has remained consistent.

Systemic Discrimination

Among initial obstacles for women under the protection of the EEOC was a rule, called Bona Fide Occupational Qualification, that protected employers. BFOQ allowed employers to continue exclusion of women from certain positions if they could not reasonably meet the qualifications. Gradually, the EEOC began to tighten restrictions on BFOQ exclusions. In such cases, systemic discrimination was often discovered, where industries or individual companies had long standing practices of gender exclusion without viable justification. 1982's EEOC case against the Minnesota Mining Co. was a landmark decision for women's rights in the workplace. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the venerable iron ore mine and taconite producer had excluded women from various positions and pay scales based solely on gender.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

As the EEOC had become increasingly successful in preventing overt sexual discrimination in the workplace, a new type of discrimination came to prominence. 1988's Meritor V. Hinson was the first successfully tried sexual harassment lawsuit brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. The EEOC broadened its definition of discrimination to include instances of "quid pro quo", or "this for that". It found that women were protected under anti-discrimination laws from unwelcome advances in the workplace or any insinuation that a sexual relationship may have a positive or negative effect on their employment.

Reaching Toward Equality

In 1991, congress strengthened and updated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, providing further protection for women in the workplace. Medical leave could now be granted without fear of reprisals or termination, and the EEOC could now look more closely at the practices of hiring and promotion by companies. Roughly 40 per cent of all new business will be opened by women through 2009, and 15 Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, a number that has increased steadily in recent years. As new generations embrace equality and continue their dismissal of traditional gender roles, sexual discrimination in the workplace may become less and less prevalent.

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About the Author

Eric Erickson has written professionally since 2004. He is a published poet with work appearing in "Plainsongs" and "The Curbside Review." He was a staff writer for the websites and Erickson received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Metropolitan State College of Denver.