Sexual Stereotyping Violates Title VII and State Anti-Discrimination Laws

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Can terminating an employee because she didn’t have that “Midwestern girl look” and dressed too much like Ellen DeGeneres, i.e. she wasn’t feminine enough, constitute sex discrimination, in violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws? For most courts across the country, the answer is yes.

Earlier this year, the Eighth Circuit (the federal appeals court that includes Minnesota) ruled that imposing sex-stereotyped stigma on a protected employee violates Title VII. In the case, Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., No. 08-3860 (8th Cir. Jan. 21, 2010), the plaintiff was an exemplary employee, a front-desk clerk at a hotel. However, when a new director came on the scene, she realized that the plaintiff was not a conventionally feminine dresser:  “Lewis describes her own appearance as ‘slightly more masculine,’ and [Lewis’s manager] Stifel has characterized it as “an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look.” Lewis prefers to wear loose fitting clothing, including men’s button down shirts and slacks. She avoids makeup and wore her hair short at the time. Lewis has been mistaken for a male and referred to as ‘tomboyish.'”

The new director also insisted that current employees be reinterviewed and that the interviews with front desk employees be videotaped, so that she could decide whether they met her standard for attractiveness. When the plaintiff was let go for alleged poor performance, she filed a claim of sex discrimination.

The court held that  Title VII and similar state anti-discrimination laws protect against adverse actions motivated by sex stereotyping, citing similar decisions in other circuits. So the lesson in all this is something that we knew already, but that bears repeating: judge employees and applicants on their qualities, experience and skills, not on appearance or other physical characteristics.

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