The Ever-Changing Face of Sex Stereotyping and Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

By York, Kenneth M.; Tyler, Catherine L. et al. | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Ever-Changing Face of Sex Stereotyping and Sex Discrimination in the Workplace


York, Kenneth M., Tyler, Catherine L., Tyler, J. Michael, Gugel, Paul E., Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


A firefighter for the City of Salem, Ohio, sued the fire department and the city for discrimination. The case was based on discrimination related to Smith's (the firefighter's) status as a transsexual. The U.S. Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes sex discrimination based on sex stereotyping. The Smith case calls attention to the ever-changing face of sex discrimination in the workplace. This article suggests reasons for organizational difficulties in interpreting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also discusses issues related to sex stereotyping, and it identifies possible proactive organizational responses.

Keywords: equal opportunity; gender issues; sex discrimination; stereotypes

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More than 40 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sex discrimination in the workplace remains a problem. Sex discrimination may persist for a variety of reasons: failure to implement appropriate human resources management practices to ensure compliance with fair employment practices laws; sex stereotypes that affect organizational decisions about recruitment, selection, and performance appraisal; or shifting judicial interpretations of what constitutes sex discrimination. Recently, the case of Smith v. City of Salem (2004) broadened discrimination in the workplace from discrimination based on group membership to discrimination based on nonstereotypical behavior. Although many organizations have put into place fair employment policies and practices to prevent discrimination based on sex, the Smith case shows that these policies and practices need to be broadened to prevent discrimination based on sex stereotypes.

The purpose of this article is to examine sex discrimination in light of recent cases that expand the range of sex discrimination claims from membership in a minority group to behaviors that violate sex stereotypes. It also provides a forum to discuss organizational practices designed to prevent sex discrimination resulting from sex stereotyping. This article initially discusses an example related to a special case of sex stereotyping. This example is then used to build a generalized framework of sex stereotyping in organizations in general. Although extensive research has been done on sex discrimination and sex stereotypes, questions remain about the impact of organizational culture and leadership on the likelihood of sex stereotypes affecting employment decisions.

The Case of Smith v. City of Salem

In 2001, the City of Salem, Ohio, suspended a transsexual firefighter for a minor infraction. The firefighter sued the fire department and the city for sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The trial court dismissed the suit on the grounds that Title VII protection is unavailable to transsexuals. On August 5, 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) reversed the trial court's decision. Relying primarily on the Supreme Court case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), the court said,

   Sex stereotyping based on a person's gender nonconforming behavior
   is impermissible discrimination, irrespective of the cause of that
   behavior; a label, such as transsexual, is not fatal to a sex
   discrimination claim where the victim has suffered discrimination
   because of his or her gender nonconformity. (p. 11)

Smith had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and began to dress and act in a feminine manner. Smith's coworkers began to question his appearance. He informed his immediate supervisor about the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis and the recommended treatment: complete surgical transformation from male to female. City officials tried to force him to resign by directing him to undergo three separate psychological evaluations. The circuit court held that in accordance with Hopkins, Smith was discriminated against because of his failure to conform to sex norms--that is, because he was perceived by coworkers as insufficiently masculine (Bible, 2005). …

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