Resolving Ethical Conflicts in the Workplace
Is Wells Fargo a Corrupt Organization?

Gender Bias in the Workplace

Occupational Well-Being of Women Lags that of Men

Pay equity between men and women persists with women earning 80% of men. Gender bias may be even more of a problem as old stereotypes still exist and women are judged by a different set of standards than men. Recently, more women have moved up the ladder but the glass ceiling still prevents them from reaching the C-suite, which includes positions like chief financial officer and chief operating office – 81% are men and 19% are women. Beyond that, women still deal with sexual harassment including off-putting jokes about their appearance, unwanted sexual advances, and expectations of doing menial tasks like getting the coffee or taking notes at meetings.

Occupational well-being is critical to one’s mental health in the workplace and can negatively affect performance. A study from 1985 to 2012 of 74,000 females found that sexist work environments negatively affected women’s occupational well-being. The more common, less intense forms of gender harassment (like office jokes where sexist jokes are tolerated) “appeared as detrimental for women’s occupational well-being” as the less frequent, high-intensity incidents (like sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention.

Caryl Rivers, the co-author of a recent book on gender bias titled “The New Soft War on Women,” identifies 13 subtle ways women are still treated differently at work. The list includes several that show a bias when evaluating the value of women in the workplace including:

  • Women are more likely to get lower initial offers
  • Women are less likely to get credit in group project
  • When women show anger, they are often judged as too emotional
  • If women are assertive, it can be seen as aggressive
  • When women are successful, they are often called “bitchy” and seen as less likeable
  • Women are often interrupted or ignored at meetings

The treatment of women in the workplace is tenuous at best. Supervisors and top management that set different standards for men and women run the risk of potentially turning off 50% of the workforce. Moreover, the organization loses the opportunity of enhancing its leadership group if women are turned-off by their treatment in the workplace. 

What can women do if they believe they are being treated differently than men? Here are ten steps you can take:

  1. Avoid engaging that person during group meetings because he/she is more likely to act defensively.
  2. Meet privately with the person you feel is treating you differently.
  3. Stay calm and get right to the point.
  4. Ask for an explanation.
  5. Keep track of the dates and actions and inform a co-worker or trusted adviser to develop an ongoing record.
  6. Go to a supervisor to discuss the issue but only after attempting to resolve the matter one-on-one.
  7. If the matter goes unchecked report it to the HR Department.
  8. Beware of retaliation for your actions and document treatment carefully and fully: who said what to whom; on what dates; what was your reaction?
  9. Contact an attorney if the matter goes unresolved and you are retaliated against.
  10. Consider filing a gender discrimination or sexual harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Both Title VII and the Equal Pay Act (EPA) make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in the payment of wages or benefits.  The EPA requires that men and women be given equal pay for equal work in the same organization. The laws against discrimination in compensation include salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, and so on.

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII does not explicitly use the words “sexual harassment” but courts have held that it is a form of illegal sex discrimination.

EEOC interprets and enforces Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination as forbidding any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. These protections apply regardless of any contrary state or local laws. The Commission has taken the position that existing sex discrimination provisions in Title VII protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) applicants and employees against employment bias.

Gender discrimination persists in the workplace. Gender fairness is a matter of creating an ethical culture of respect and holding all employees responsible for their actions.

It has been said that ethics is about what we do when no one is looking. Gender discrimination oftentimes manifests itself behind closed doors so it is unlikely to have been observed by a third party. The “he said, she said” nature of the beast can create tensions in the workplace and a toxic environment if untreated.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 12, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at