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Gender Stereotyping May Lead to Sexual Discrimination Claims

Gender stereotyping has recently become a source of friction in the workplace. Most frequently it involves situations where an employee dresses or behaves in a non-traditional manner, especially where questions over sexual orientation arise. As a result, gender stereotyping claims have increasingly led to litigation, usually involving cases where plaintiffs allege that they were disciplined or terminated because they failed to adhere to commonly accepted gender norms. Such actions are a form of sexual discrimination which is prohibited under Title VII.

Another type of gender stereotyping exists when females are perceived as not adhering to supposedly normal gender norms, as for example when she is accused of being overly "aggressive", in other words, behaving like a man. Aggressive behavior may be applauded for male employees, but when displayed by female co-workers, it can be viewed as bossy or otherwise inappropriate. When this difference in perception leads to different outcomes in terms of performance evaluations, litigation can result.

In Potter v. Synerlink Corp., a new unpublished decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Stacey Potter was the only female regional salesperson for Synerlink. After several years of top sales and lauded performance, she began clashing with management over her reluctance to give up accounts to a newly formed sales territory. These disputes ultimately led to her termination, and she sued for sex discrimination, claiming that male salespersons had voiced similar objections, but had not been terminated as a result.

A lower court ruled in favor of Synerlink, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. It rejected the employer's contention that Potter was fired for not being a "team player." She introduced testimony from multiple male sales managers who disclosed that they had argued with management over changes in sales territories and customer assignment. These disputes led to negotiation and compromise, rather than termination.

This does not mean that the employer terminated the plaintiff due to her gender, but it raises the possibility that the stated reason for her termination, not being a "team player", was just a pretext, and that a jury might find that the actual reason was sex discrimination.

The takeaway? If you are a female working in a male dominated workplace, be aware any difference in the way male employees are treated compared to the females. If you are terminated due to what you believe are trumped up reasons, it may actually be because you don't "fit in". That could be considered sexual discrimination under Title VII.
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