Discrimination refers to a person’s behavior toward another based on the other’s social characteristics, such as age, sex, ethnicity, or national origin. Thus, sex discrimination is differential treatment of women and men. Inappropriate discrimination (for example, excluding workers from certain jobs or offering them lower wages based on their sex) is a topic of importance to the study of careers.
Discrimination is usually distinguished from prejudice, which may be defined as a negative attitude toward a social group and members of that group, usually based on a faulty and inflexible generalization or stereotype. Discrimination against women (or men) does not necessarily involve prejudice toward women (or men). While being prejudiced is not illegal, discriminating in favor of one sex and against the other sex may be illegal under certain circumstances in a number of countries.
Thus, the study of sex discrimination is typically concerned with negative and potentially illegal behavior that may or may not be based on prejudice and has the effect of disadvantaging and sometimes denying certain rights because of a person’s sex. Furthermore, while individuals may discriminate against one sex by treating them differently from the other sex, institutions may also discriminate based on sex through their policies and procedures. For example, decades ago many airlines had a no-marriage policy for female flight attendants, and they would terminate them if they married or when they turned a specific age, typically about 35. Policies may also appear sex neutral on their face but differentially affect the sexes. For example, the practice of laying off employees with the least seniority will usually result in higher layoff rates among women than men, as more women than men may have interrupted their work history to have and raise children or tailor their career to the needs of their spouse’s career. Requiring managers to spend a certain number of years working in different locations, including different countries, in order to advance to senior management positions is also likely to have the effect of discriminating against women. Whether such practices may be considered illegal depends on whether or not they are based on a business necessity, a condition that itself may be open to debate.
In the United States, there are two different kinds of illegal sex discrimination: disparate treatment and disparate impact. Requiring female but not male flight attendants to quit their job when they marry is an example of disparate treatment. Policies that result in lower pay for jobs held predominantly by women that are of comparable worth to those held predominantly by men is an example of disparate impact. Finally, sexual harassment is treated as a type of sex discrimination under the law in the United States, based on the notion that except in the rare instance of so-called equal opportunity harassers, harassment is based on the target’s sex, whether the harasser is engaging in heterosexual or homosexual sexual harassment.
Why does Sex Discrimination Exist?
Some economists and other social scientists argue that sex discrimination cannot exist because the discriminatory employer (i.e., one who has a “taste” for discrimination) would have to forgo qualified women and pay higher wages to hire all men, thereby raising labor costs. Higher labor costs would make that employer noncompetitive and should be driven out of business. There are many problems with this argument. For example, if all employers have the same taste for discrimination, then they are all equally competitive. In addition, what constitutes a job qualification is a messy process. Furthermore, if most CEOs and all U.S. presidents are men, it may appear that men are more qualified by virtue of being male. Customers, coworkers, managers, and executives may treat women differently, and/or they may devalue the work done by women. If people believe that our society is more or less a meritocracy, they may wonder why would there not be more women in those jobs if there were as many qualified women as qualified men. In addition, women’s occupational status may go unacknowledged. How many women managers or female faculty have been mistaken for secretaries or administrative assistants? How many male nurses have been mistaken for doctors? Virtually all societies exhibit some task specialization by sex, complicating the issue of sex discrimination.
Social scientists have used several concepts to explain sex discrimination, including sex-role spillover, stereotyping of people and jobs, tokenism, a lack of fit, and homophilous social networks, described below.
Sex-role spillover is an outgrowth of role theory. When the expectations associated with being male or female trump the expectations associated with a particular job (or work role), sex-role spillover occurs. Thus it is the carryover to the workplace of gender-based roles that are usually inappropriate or irrelevant to work, and it occurs when, for example, female managers or professors are expected to be more caring and nurturing than male managers or professors. Sex-role spillover also occurs when men are expected to conform to a stereotype—to assume the leadership role in a mixed-sex group or pay the bill at a business lunch with a female colleague. Sex-role spillover occurs because gender is a more basic social category than any particular job that men or women hold. It is rare to forget a person’s gender, less rare to forget that person’s occupation. In the past, job titles were themselves gendered (e.g., steward vs. stewardess, actor vs. actress, waiter vs. waitress). Because gender is such a visible characteristic and sex roles are strongly reinforced, both sexes may feel more comfortable behaving in accordance with sex roles than in violating them.
Stereotyping is another process that helps to explain sex discrimination. Gender stereotypes consist of a set of beliefs about the characteristics that men and women are likely to possess. Both people and jobs are subject to stereotypes. Research has shown, for example, that the stereotype of manager is more similar to the stereotype of men than it is to the stereotype of women. Furthermore, some traits viewed as positive in men (e.g., competitiveness) may be viewed less positively in women; thus the claims that “he is assertive; she is a bitch.” Similarly, characteristics valued in women such as sensitivity may be viewed negatively and considered a weakness in a man. Thus when a job calls for nurturing behavior, some may turn to women workers, and when firmness is needed, a woman may be passed over in favor of a man who is assumed—based on stereotype—to possess more of it than a female colleague.
Tokenism occurs when someone with a visible social characteristic is relatively rare in a work group or organization. The lone female executive or male secretary is an example. Token status increases stereotyping because being different from others in the work group makes it easier to stereotype. In addition, because the token is visibly different from others in the same job or work group, tokenism creates performance pressures. When the solo woman makes a mistake, it is visible and may reflect on all women, whereas if one man among many men makes mistakes, it will be viewed as his problem, not a shortcoming of all men. Token status also leads to polarization, or an exaggeration of differences between men and women.
The concept of lack of fit helps to identify the conditions under which gender discrimination might flourish. A woman will be viewed as being a poor fit in a job held mostly by men, and a man will be viewed as being a poor fit in a job held mostly by women. Lack of fit is more likely in jobs that are numerically dominated by one sex or the other, require activities (like being outdoors) that are associated more with one sex than the other, and/or attributes viewed as critical for success are more strongly associated with one sex than the other. Where ambition and firmness are required, men will be viewed as a better fit than women; women will be viewed as a better fit in jobs requiring warmth, nurturing, or dealing with annoyed customers. A lack of fit may help account for the fact that women, particularly those in nontraditional jobs, sometimes have a more difficult time than men in finding a mentor.
Social networks consist of the people with whom one interacts in any given domain, such as work. Social networks are characterized by gender homophily, that is, people tend to interact with others of the same sex. One explanation for the underrepresentation of women in top management positions is that they do not hold key positions in occupationally related social networks. An individual’s worth in relation to a specific network is referred to as his or her “social capital” for that network. Individuals holding key positions in important networks have high social worth or social capital. If women are not valued as much as men, they have less social capital, leading to possible exclusion from the important networks that would help to propel them into upper level management positions.
Evidence for Sex Discrimination
The evidence shows considerable disparities between men and women: in pay, in promotion rate, in level in the organizational hierarchy. The basic question is, To what extent are these differences caused by sex discrimination? Although there is considerable research bearing on this issue, particularly with respect to pay, the results are apparently not compelling enough for many people to rule out possible competing explanations.
According to U.S. Census data, in 1999 the median earnings of the 83 million full-time, year-round (FTYR) workers in the United States was $33,000; the mean was $43,000. About 10 percent of earners made more than $75,000 a year. For full-time workers in 2002, the average woman earned 77 percent of the wage of the average man, an increase in 5 percentage points since 1999. This reduction is partly due to the decline in the number of relatively high-paying skilled and semiskilled blue-collar jobs held mostly by men. Among the highest paying occupations, the gender gap is bigger. For example, among physicians and surgeons, full-time, year-round women make 63 percent of the wages of comparable men. This “cost of being female” persists no matter how one defines earnings or income, in all race and ethnic groups, across educational levels, over the life cycle, within detailed occupational categories, across cultures, and in the past as well as in the present.
Researchers have attempted to account for these pay disparities, primarily using a statistical technique known as regression analysis. Typically, they attempt to include all factors that might legitimately explain the fact that the average man has a higher income than the average woman. Invariably, after these “legitimate” variables (e.g., education level, hours worked, experience) are taken into account, some wage disparity remains. Whether that amount can rightfully be attributed to discrimination, or whether some legitimate but unmeasured factors can account for the difference, is debated, with some researchers convinced that discrimination is the explanation while others hold out for some other unmeasured factors. Others may provide explanations like gender differences in negotiating behavior or level of expectations, where research typically shows that women have lower pay expectations than men. Of course, gender differences in pay expectations may simply reflect reality (since women’s pay is on average lower than men’s in the same job) or an underlying gender difference that disadvantages women, or both. Similarly, researchers have tried to account for other gender differences such as in performance ratings. One study found that, controlling other variables, women received relatively lower performance ratings than men when the proportion of women in a work group was small.
Alleviating Sex Discrimination
One area of research focuses on the success or failure of attempts to alleviate discrimination faced by working women, including the impacts of laws and other programs aimed at providing equal opportunity, addressing affirmative action, establishing the comparable worth of jobs, and eliminating sexual harassment. Researchers have identified more than 100 different mechanisms that might assist organizations in reaching these goals. These activities can be divided into two types: identity-blind activities (such as formal mentoring programs, flexible work schedules, and employee assistance programs) or identity-conscious activities that consider one’s sex or race. These include targeting women (or other underrepresented groups) in hiring and promotion considerations, targeting women for management training, establishing a women’s interest group in the workplace, and the like. In general, the identity-blind practices and policies are more common and preferred by most people. It is the identity-conscious practices, however, that are effective in that only they result in high levels of employment status for minority and majority women and minority men. Thus, working environments that target activities for women result in better outcomes for women. Some research shows, however, that if others believe women and minorities were hired or promoted only because of their sex or race, preferential treatment can lead others to believe those women and minorities were not qualified.
Laws are not the only approach to alleviating problems of sex discrimination. Mere information can counter stereotypes and reduce sex-role spillover. Thus providing relevant information, such as information about a worker’s qualifications or performance, can constitute a deterrent against sex discrimination. More generally, the type of solution sought depends on the way the problem is defined. Four models of problem definition and some problem-solving strategies that follow from them can be identified. They are (1) the individual-deficit model wherein the problem is defined as problem people, (2) the structural model wherein organizational structures and policies hamper women, (3) the sex-role model wherein social roles and role expectations and role stereotypes hamper women, and (4) the intergroup model wherein men and women are viewed as opposing groups fighting over a limited amount of desirable jobs, power, and influence. Perhaps because they are the cheapest and easiest to implement, most proposed solutions fit the individual-deficit model. These solutions also fit people’s beliefs in strong and pervasive gender differences. Women and men are assumed to prefer different job attributes (with men preferring power and recognition and women preferring good coworkers and an opportunity to help others). A meta-analysis of this literature found only limited support for this view. Furthermore, that research showed that women’s aspirations were more similar to men’s as gender barriers to opportunity declined in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, most “solutions” to gender inequality aim to correct women’s “deficits” through training and self-help materials targeted at them. Examples include assertiveness training and how to write a business plan or obtain venture capital. Increasingly, men too are targets of training aimed at sensitizing them to issues like sexual harassment and sex discrimination.
Overall, the topic of sex discrimination has attracted substantial research attention over the past 25 years or so. While the field is not bereft of theory, much of the research continues to be descriptive, an approach well suited to a topic that is fraught with misperceptions and misinformation.
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