What Laws Protect Against Sex Discrimination?

Laws at the federal and state levels prohibit sex discrimination in a wide range of contexts

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on September 22, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Nina T. Pirrotti

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In everyday speech, “discrimination” sometimes has a neutral meaning. For example, a wine connoisseur has discriminating taste, meaning they’ve trained to pick up on nuances others miss.

In the context of anti-discrimination law, the term has a technical and negative meaning. To discriminate is to treat someone unfairly or unequally compared to others because of particular characteristics they have, such as their race, religion, national origin, or sex.

Nina T. Pirrotti, a discrimination and employment law attorney at Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti in New Haven, Connecticut, says that in her experience, there are many misconceptions about what is legally protected and what is not.

“Employment law has many requirements that you have to meet in order for discriminatory conduct to be actionable in a lawsuit,” she says. “Even if the conduct is wrong or poor business judgment, it may not rise to the level of actionable conduct. The flip side of this is that sometimes, people don’t realize they’re being subjected to a hostile environment.”

This article introduces the major federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and points the way to getting legal help if you’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace or other settings.

What Is Sex-Based Discrimination?

Sex discrimination is treating someone less favorably because of their sex. As clarified by federal statutes and case law from the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, it includes discrimination based on a person’s:

  • Sexual orientation;
  • Gender identity and expression; and
  • Pregnancy or pregnancy-related medical conditions.

Employers cannot treat employees unfairly based on sex stereotypes about how men or women should behave or the sort of roles they can have. Prohibitions against employment discrimination apply to all employment practices and job-related decisions, including:

  • Job applicant interviews;
  • Hiring and conditions of employment;
  • Promotion, demotion, or transfers;
  • Granting or withholding privileges of employment; and
  • Termination.

Employment law has many requirements that you have to meet in order for discriminatory conduct to be actionable in a lawsuit. Even if the conduct is wrong or poor business judgment, it may not rise to the level of actionable conduct. The flip side of this is that sometimes, people don’t realize they’re being subjected to a hostile environment.

Nina T. Pirrotti

The Laws That Prohibit Sex Discrimination

Federal laws that protect individuals from sex discrimination include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in the context of education programs or activities that receive any federal funding, including public and private schools.
  • The Equal Pay Act prohibits wage and benefits discrimination against employees because of their sex when they perform substantially equal work in the same context.
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination based on past, current, or potential pregnancy, plus medical conditions related to pregnancy.
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits sex-based discrimination against credit applicants.
  • The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on sex in renting, selling, and financing.
  • Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibits discrimination based on sex (and other protected classes) in covered health programs and insurers who receive federal financial assistance through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles employment discrimination complaints. Other federal agencies are involved in enforcing anti-discrimination laws arising from different contexts. For example, the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces anti-discrimination laws in healthcare.

While federal law sets the minimum baseline of legal protection, states can provide more robust legal protections against different types of discrimination. Depending on the statute under which you bring a sex discrimination claim and whether the statute is federal or state-level, you may have to file a complaint with the relevant governmental agency before you can sue your employer for discrimination.

Sexual Harassment is a Type of Sex Discrimination

Workplace sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance from a co-worker or supervisor. It may include unwanted sexual contact, requesting sexual favors, making sexualized remarks or jokes, or disparaging comments about a person’s gender.

Pirrotti explains that sexual harassment may be severe (a one-time act) or pervasive (occurring over a more extended period).

“An example of a severe act would be grabbing a woman’s genitalia or breast. That single action would be severe in and of itself. However, if the sexual harassment is not severe, it could still be pervasive, meaning it’s day-in-day-out, or happens with a regularity or frequency that it creates a hostile work environment,” she says.

“The classic hostile work environment case would involve a woman who works in an office where, every day, she’s subjected to sexual innuendo and jokes—or, even worse, touched inappropriately or propositioned. If that happens, and it rises to the level of what the law calls severe or pervasive, that employee would have a sexual harassment claim.”

Find an Experienced Discrimination Law Attorney

If you have experienced discrimination in your workplace or other contexts, consider speaking with an attorney about your legal options under federal or state law. An attorney can assess your situation for legal claims and help you navigate the early phases of documenting and reporting sex discrimination.

To begin your search for an experienced attorney in your area, visit the Super Lawyers directory of discrimination law attorneys. To learn more about this legal area, see our overview of discrimination law and related legal content on sexual harassment claims.

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