HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

What Is Sex Stereotyping?

Have you heard the term “sex stereotyping”? Do you know what it means in reference to workplace behaviors?

We’re going to take a look at what sex stereotyping is and why it matters for employers.

What Is Sex Stereotyping?

The short answer is this: sex stereotyping occurs when someone has a preconceived idea about how someone should be, act, or behave on the basis of that person’s sex.

There are many examples of this in our society, but it becomes problematic when employees are discriminated against for not acting in a way that is expected of them on the basis of their gender. In other words, they’re not conforming to a preconceived notion or stereotype, and they suffer a negative consequence as a result.

This can be quite complex for employers because sex stereotyping is a form of gender discrimination, which is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Arguably, this type of gender discrimination could happen more easily than other forms of discrimination, making it a major risk for employers. Employers may be accused of discrimination or harassment based on behaviors that are related to gender expectations.

Here are a few examples of sex stereotyping:

  • Treating someone differently (including harassing behaviors) because he or she does not act masculine or feminine enough based on predetermined ideas of what it means to be either masculine or feminine. This example is possibly the most prevalent: having preconceived notions of how people should behave based on their gender and then treating them differently if they do not meet the expectations. Common gender stereotypes include things like expecting males to be tough, aggressive, or unattached or expecting females to be more sensitive, more emotional, and not aggressive.
  • Expecting, without a clear business justification, that an employee’s attire will confirm to stereotypical male or female dress standards.
  • Treating someone differently because his or her interpersonal relationships do not conform to perceived heteronormative culture[i].
  • Having different policies, without business justification, for men and women when it comes to things like appropriate attire, hairstyles, or makeup.
  • Asking only employees of one gender to perform duties that are stereotypically assigned to that gender. For example, if extra cleaning is needed around the workplace, it would be a sex stereotype to assume that the women in the workplace would be better suited for those duties. Or, if outdoor maintenance activities are required, it would be a sex stereotype to assume that only the men in the workplace could perform that role.

This list of course could never be comprehensive—it is simply meant to illustrate how common sex stereotyping can be. Any time someone is discriminated against, harassed, or retaliated against for something specific to his or her gender—whether it’s because of gender or because he or she is not meeting gender stereotypes—that is likely to be considered gender discrimination and, as such, is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Retaliation after complaints about discrimination or harassment is also prohibited.

[i] Note: whether or not sexual orientation discrimination clearly qualifies as a form of gender discrimination (and thus is already protected under Title VII) is something the courts are still deciding. The latest appeals court ruling (as of April 2017) indicates that yes, sexual orientation discrimination is actionable under Title VII (see:!1515!Y21pbmlAc2VhcmNoaW5jLmNvbQ==)