Sex Discrimination

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Author: Erin Rider
Editors: Craig J. Forsyth and Heith Copes
Date: 2014
Encyclopedia of Social Deviance
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Sex Discrimination

Institutionalized discrimination based specifically on sexism is termed sex discrimination or gender discrimination. Sex discrimination is based on either preference for one sex over the other or disadvantage based on sex. There seems to be a common expectation for victims to report and mitigate sex discrimination; however, due to power inequalities between the perpetrator and the victim, as well as normalized sexism, victims may find it difficult to find support for reporting discrimination. Literature on sex discrimination tends to address workplace forms of discrimination (occupational sex discrimination) in which men are typically preferred in recruitment, hiring, and promotion compared with their female counterparts. In female-dominated fields (e.g., gender typing), there is evidence to suggest that men are valued and promoted above women, referred to as a glass escalator effect.

As certain fields and occupations become gender typed, general characteristics emerge to determine the ideal male or female candidate, which serves to hinder gender crossover. For example, gender segregation is observed in males as doctors and females as nurses and is sustained due to the masculine and feminine characteristics that are normalized for each occupation. Many scholars have explained sex discrimination by suggesting that patriarchal ideologies tend to favor or overvalue masculine-based traits particularly in the workforce, while feminine traits receive less attention and value. For instance, the glass ceiling effect represents a prominent form of institutionalized sex discrimination in which women face invisible promotion barriers despite qualifications and experience. Similarly, in traditionally male-dominated fields and industries, women are presumed to be less capable of performing job tasks when compared with male applicants and workers. Historically and contemporarily, sex discrimination is a normalized workplace factor that tends to treat men and women unequally, by underrepresenting women in hiring, promotions, and pay grades in comparison with men. This entry addresses key forms of sex discrimination in settings such as in the workforce and in sports, as well as discrimination related to sexual minority groups.

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Occupational Sex Segregation

Females tend to be disadvantaged in the workforce based on occupational sex segregation. Historically, women’s career entry in the formal paid labor force has been socially hindered due to societal expectations that women become stay-at-home mothers. In terms of race and ethnic minority, women and low-income women in general tend to fill lower paid jobs, such as domestic workers or secretarial assistant positions. Female-dominated jobs typically receive less prestige and incur lower salary and pay grades compared with male counterparts. In both white- and blue-collar jobs, male domination and work roles linked to masculine-based tasks tend to limit women’s equal entry as applicants and workers. Masculine and feminine traits underlie interpretations made of job applicants. Particularly masculine traits tend to be valued by employers, while female job applicants may experience prejudice based on feminine skills linked to less appreciation in the workplace. Patterns consistently show that male employers prefer male rather than female applicants.

Research also demonstrates that women’s career pathways are bimodal and less linear than men’s career trajectories. Women tend to enter the labor force for a period of time, then leave to raise a family, before eventually returning once their children have reached a certain age. In terms of sex discrimination, men’s career paths are less interrupted, giving them greater opportunity to advance their careers. Women employees, therefore, are socially obligated to negotiate and balance family caretaking responsibilities with work, meaning that they may be expected to take time off in the case of sick children, for example. Furthermore, their salary contributions are perceived as supplementary to their male counterparts.


The Equal Employer Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has remained at the forefront for addressing, monitoring, and mitigating sex discrimination in the workforce. The EEOC serves to prevent favoring or denying employees on the basis of their gender and, particularly, disputes sexual harassment. Protection from sex discrimination is upheld by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prevention efforts put forth by the EEOC advocate that employers and employees consult policy information and participate in educational seminars to identify sexual harassment and proactively strive to reduce and resolve cases. A key form of sex discrimination is the favoritism of an employee on the basis of sex. Preferential treatment on the basis of sex is considered discriminatory due to the coercion between the perpetrator and victim as a result of uneven power relations. Individuals’ job skills may be undermined when advancements or positive sanctions are based on sexual favoritism. Furthermore, employees may find that their job security, safety, and ability to refuse sexual favoritism may be compromised. Additionally, sex discrimination creates an atmosphere of unfair advantages and disadvantages for workers and employers, contributing to a general hostility.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment has been a pervasive social problem linked to workplaces. Sexual harassment is not only an independent social problem but also a predictor of other social problems within the workforce, such as disruption in worker productivity. Thus, the EEOC has developed policies and procedures devised for preventing and reporting. Two types of sexual harassment for which the EEOC has designed policies to address are quid pro quo and hostile workplaces. According to the EEOC, the former defines that coerced sexual advances influence employment decisions, while the latter states that sexual advances negatively affect job performances and generates a hostile atmosphere. The hostility creates both physical and psychological health consequences for the victim. Workplace sexual harassment functions to undermine the rights of women by reducing their role to sexual objectification. Because of men’s greater likelihood to hold managerial and supervisory positions, the uneven balance of power between male and female workers undermines sexual harassment opportunities. Considering racial differences among perpetrators and victims, research shows that African American women are more likely to identify sexual harassment when the perpetrator is white compared with white women. Hence, race and sex discrimination merge to place many African American female employees in potentially hostile workplaces.

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Title IX and Education

Sex discrimination has been largely mitigated by the 1972 passing of Title IX, which sought to prevent sex discrimination in educational settings with regard to academic programs and sports. Education has largely encountered sex selection in major fields offered. Traditionally, women have been encouraged into female-dominated areas, deterred from male fields due to presumed lack of capability, and even internalized social messages to follow traditional education and career pathways that correspond to sex. Although women have been disadvantaged based on deterrence from male-dominated areas, similar arguments can be made for men who have been pushed into male-dominated areas rather than female-dominated fields, despite their interests and abilities. Many of the societal supports for male- and female-dominated fields of study and professions have been upheld due to preferences for masculine and feminine traits and traditional gender roles. As a result, men have been socialized to be leaders and secure corporate, prestigious, or labor-intensive jobs, while women have been urged to pursue assistant, teaching, or caretaking roles, both of which coincide with gender role expectations.

Title IX and Female Sports

Sex discrimination has also received attention and criticism in higher education, particularly with regard to women’s sports. Emphasis on male sports as revenue generators and widespread media popularity have disserviced female sports’ legitimacy. Title IX sought to remedy the inequality between male and female sports with mixed outcomes. In general, male sports—football, basketball, and baseball—have generated significant recruitment, larger teams, greater fund-raising, and consistent fan presence. In comparison, women’s sports have attempted to achieve similar results, but with less success. Female athletes tend to be devalued for their skills and abilities, and thus, attention is placed on sexualizing them to coincide with feminine ideals. Certain female sports, such as softball, are vulnerable to outside stigma that characterizes women athletes as lesbians, thus undermining their athleticism. Even with efforts to minimize sex discrimination under Title IX, a lack of support has emerged when these efforts have been perceived as adding a female team at the expense of eliminating a popular male sports team. Advocates and participants of male sports have claimed that reducing or eliminating funding and teams are forms of sex discrimination as well.

Sexual Minorities

Sex discrimination is not limited to ascribed differences associated with gender but also pertains to sexual minority groups that are not defined as the dominant heterosexual group. Patriarchal societies tend to support divisive traditional gender roles in which men have greater power over women. This tendency is further sustained by a predominant valuing of heterosexuality. A climate of heterosexism undermines the tolerance and validation for sexualities alternative to heterosexuality, because the latter is determined to be normal (even natural to some arguments) and institutionalized as the standard. For example, cultural customs tend to sustain heterosexuality, such as the media’s overrepresentation of heterosexual relations and the institution of marriage and correlating benefits. Individuals and social groups identifying as gay, lesbian, transgender/sexual, or bisexual face varying degrees of individual and societal discrimination, such as stigma, homophobia, lack of civil rights, and even violence.

Additionally, alternative sexualities tend to be socially interpreted by the dominant heterosexual group as jeopardizing complementary, albeit unequal gender and sexual roles. For example, men who identify and/or engage in an alternative sexuality to heterosexuality are subjected to ridicule, discrimination, and violence because society perceives them as not only failing to uphold male gender scripts but also weakening the construction of masculinity. Women who identify as lesbians or bisexuals, for instance, also face similar ridicule and societal rejection for failing to subscribe to feminine expectations and failing to sexually attract and attain a male sexual partner. Ironically, due to a heterosexist environment in which the predominance of heterosexuality aligns with gender inequality, women sometimes face mixed messages in which bisexual behavior or any sexual involvement between two or more women is sensationalized. Social messages have been made to suggest that bisexuality and lesbianism could be tolerated by heterosexist environments if they support male sexual scripts of sexual involvement with multiple women. In comparison, gay and bisexual men may be more severely victimized by heterosexism compared with lesbian and bisexual women due to traditional gender roles. The categories of what makes an ideal man or woman tend to be more restrictive of men than of women. Socialization in part influenced by changes in women’s access to rights has been more permissive of girls and women engaging in masculine characteristics and tasks, but less supportive of boys and men who take on feminine roles. Thus, homosexuality among males may directly threaten the power afforded to masculinity and linked to men to a greater extent than homosexuality among women. Overall, sex discrimination correlates to the normalization of traditional gender roles in which men and heterosexuality are considered socially dominant compared with their counterparts.

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Erin Rider

Further Readings

Dermer, S., Smith, S., & Barto, K. (2010). Identifying and correctly labeling sexual prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 325–331.

Gorman, E. (2009). Hierarchical rank and women’s organizational mobility: Glass ceilings in corporate law firms. American Journal of Sociology, 114, 1428–1474.

Jewell, E. (2010). Athletics and Title IX of the 1972 education amendments. Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, 11, 245–271.

Levine, J. (2009). It’s a man’s job, or so they say: The maintenance of sex segregation in a manufacturing plant. Sociological Quarterly, 50, 257–282.

Sheridan, M. (2007). Just because it’s sex doesn’t mean it’s because of sex: The need for new legislation to target sexual favoritism. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 40, 379–423.

Woods, K. (2009). Sexual harassment across the color line: Experiences and outcomes of cross- versus intraracial sexual harassment among black women. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15, 67–76.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6501000268