Corporations, Listen Up: Sex Discrimination Will Cost You Big Bucks

Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are still alive in today's work force
Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are still alive in today's work force

Outback Steakhouse is just one of the latest corporations to be slapped with a sex-discrimination lawsuit. While not admitting guilt, the dining chain in February agreed to pay $19 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against thousands of women at its restaurants. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), women did not receive favorable job assignments, such as kitchen management experience, which is required for employees to be considered for higher-level, profit-sharing management positions.

In a similar story, a recent suit against Denver-area car dealer Ralph Schomp Automotive stated that five women were subjected to sex discrimination and a sexually hostile work environment while employed by the car dealership. The unlawful conduct allegedly included offensive verbal comments and physical touching, demotion, refusal to transfer, salary reduction and failure to promote. Ralph Schomp settled for $1.5 million.

Many organizations have strong policies and practices against overt forms of discrimination, harassment and hostile work environments. We all know that change takes time and these efforts will make a difference.

Discrimination Is Alive and Well

Nevertheless, sexual harassment and sex discrimination are still alive in today's work force. The EEOC reported that it had a record number of discrimination charges in fiscal year 2009. Race and sex discrimination continued to be the most frequently filed, but religion, disability and retaliation claims all reached new highs.

Monetary benefits paid (not including those obtained through litigation) for sex-based discrimination charges alone were $121.5 million, representing a $12 million increase over fiscal year 2008. Monetary benefits for sexual harassment equaled $51.5 million, a $4.1 million increase.

Laws, organizational policies, and in many ways, political correctness have helped to reduce the number amount and types of overt behaviors that are demeaning or uncomfortable for women. However, it is important to note that new, more subtle forms of sexism have taken their place. Research has shown, for example, that employers often exclude women from powerful networks and developmental opportunities.

Stereotypes of Women Persist

Research has also found that stereotypes of women make others perceive them as less appropriate than men for significant leadership positions. In fact, a recent study indicated that a glass ceiling effect still exists within today's major corporations. In 2008, women occupied fewer than 10% of the executive positions within major corporations and the boards of these corporations had fewer than 5% female members.

I often facilitate women's leadership forums in which female executives discuss how to advance their careers. While most of the discussions focus on developmental activities that will help these women gain competencies needed for significant leadership roles within their companies, we also inevitably talk about the work environment for women. These women openly share stories about overt gender-related behaviors such as touching or derogatory comments, as well as more subtle gender-related behaviors such as not being invited to critical meetings or being excluded from projects or committees that would provide them with visibility or status.

Sound familiar? In fact, a recent survey sponsored by CareerBuilder and Kelley Services, and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that 25% of female workers have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the workplace. Some 17% said they have felt sexually harassed by a fellow employee or manager. The majority of the unfair treatment or discrimination incidents that women reported were the more subtle forms of discrimination.

Women Not Credited for their Work

When asked to rate all of the behaviors they had experienced in the workplace, the most commonly experienced behaviors included not receiving credit for one's work (44%); not having concerns addressed or taken seriously (43%); feeling that ideas or input were generally ignored (34%); not being given visible projects (31%); and being overlooked for promotion (26%). The respondents also reported experiencing overt types of discrimination, such as co-workers making derogatory comments to or in front of other workers (38%).

Most of the women I have talked with say that they do not report incidents because they don't feel reporting it will make a difference. Or, they are afraid that others won't believe them, especially if the people to whom they report the discrimination are close to the offender. Many don't want their employers to view them as a trouble maker and are afraid that reporting it might hurt their careers. They are worried that people will question them and their work ethic. Others simply don't know how to react.

For those women who have reported discrimination, many have said that their employers do nothing. Others suggest that their employers tell them to get a sense of humor, to lighten up or that they are too feminist.

Still a Lot of Work to Do

While many organizations have made progress in creating positive and inclusive work environments for all employees, there is still much work to do as evidenced by the recent settlements. We know that not all claims are valid, but many still are.

The leaders of organizations must recognize that creating an environment free from discrimination and harassment is an ethical and strategic imperative. It takes a lot of work, investment and concrete action to create that kind of work environment.

It is only when leaders recognize this ethical and strategic imperative that the glass ceiling and sex discrimination will begin to go away.

Dr. Christine Riordan became the 15th dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver in July 2008. As the Dean of the Daniels College of Business, Dr. Riordan leads a global network of over 33,000 faculty, staff, students, and alumni in providing business education, grounded in ethics and dedicated to transforming lives. Dr. Riordan has a national reputation as a leadership development and workplace diversity expert. Dr. Riordan consults regularly with corporations on strategic planning, leadership development activities, diversity management, and team performance. She also serves as an executive leadership coach for senior level executives.

She has been interviewed, quoted in, and written articles for magazines, newspapers and broadcast media such as:
USA Today, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Working Mother, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Investors Daily, Washington Post, Forbes, Working Mother, Entrepreneur Magazine, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Colorado Biz Magazine and appeared on CNN and conducted interviews for several public radio stations.