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The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights Takes on a Large Accounting Firm for Training that Allegedly Engaged in Illegal Gender Stereotyping

Workers can face workplace discrimination at any step in the employment process, from the application process all the way to termination. As one recent action between the Division on Civil Rights and a major accounting and professional services firm demonstrates, we do mean any step, including training sessions. It’s a reminder that, wherever you are in your employment path, if you believe you were the target of discrimination, you should definitely take the time to get in touch with an experienced New Jersey gender discrimination lawyer.

Back in 2018, a HuffPost report covered the training women workers at the accounting firm received in a one-and-one-half-day leadership seminar. According to the report, the seminar instructed attendees not to “flaunt” their bodies because showing too much skin makes men less likely to focus. The seminar also encouraged women to maintain appearances that “signal fitness and wellness.”

Additionally, according to the report, the seminar paid particular attention to discussing the supposed differences between the masculine and the feminine, along with encouraging the women to hone their feminine characteristics and avoid displaying masculine traits. One attendee told HuffPost that the seminar taught that “women will be penalized, by both men and women, if they don’t adhere to feminine characteristics or if they display more masculine traits. And that if you want to be successful, you have to keep this in mind.”

Furthermore, the report stated that the seminar taught about purported differences between male and female brains, explaining that “women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus… Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.”

This seminar eventually led to an investigation and legal action by the DCR. In June, that action ended with a settlement between the state and the employer. The settlement called for the company to pay $100,000 and also spend $500,000 setting up a scholarship fund.

The importance of this action by the DCR against this firm is actually multi-faceted. When an employer tries to establish certain “lanes” of what’s appropriate for women (or men), and then punish those who don’t stay in their designated gender “lanes,” that employer potentially engages in discrimination on multiple fronts.

The training, based on the HuffPost report of its content, appeared to engage in clear gender stereotyping. People often associate discrimination based on gender stereotyping as another way of saying sexual orientation discrimination and, while the two may frequently overlap (as some effeminate men are gay and some masculine women are lesbians,) two issues are nevertheless distinct.

For example, take the woman who was the plaintiff in the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court gender stereotyping case of Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse. That woman began suffering discrimination at work (including being denied a promotion to partner) because she refused to conduct herself in the sort of feminine manner her bosses wanted. That adverse employment action first happened in 1982. At the time, the woman was married and had three children.

Alternately, consider a hypothetical man with a relatively high-pitched voice, a slight build, and flamboyant mannerisms. He’s soft-spoken and very non-confrontational. If his employer denies him advancement because he’s ostensibly not “aggressive” enough (where “aggressive” is code for “masculine,”) he might have a winning gender stereotyping case, even if he’s heterosexual and cisgender.

The Training’s Content Erased Non-Binary and Gender Nonconforming Workers

Note that the employer’s training focused pretty much exclusively on female vs. male. That was another discriminatory element of the training. By training the attendees about how women should behave, how they should expect men to behave, and how they as women should interact with men, the training completely omitted genderqueer, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming workers. The Law Against Discrimination, in its range of protections against discrimination based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, prohibits discrimination against workers because they are gender nonconforming, genderqueer, or are non-binary. By providing training that exclusively framed issues of sex and gender at work in the binary, the training was potentially a problem in that manner.

Whether you’re male, female, genderqueer or someone outside any of those three categories, you are entitled to a workplace that rewards or punishes you based on your work, not who you are or how well you make yourself fit into a certain gender-based pigeonhole. If you’ve been harmed because of these kinds of illegal actions, reach out to the skilled New Jersey gender discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to fight back through the legal system. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and find out how we can help you.

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