“Sex discrimination” refers to the practice of denying individuals opportunities for employment, education, and other services based on their sex. Discriminatory practices were widespread among private employers and the federal and state governments prior to the 1970s, before which hire and fire bans were common in which married women were not hired or were fired upon marrying. Sex discrimination still occurs, and victims can be women or men, but since the 1960s legislation and U.S. Supreme Court decisions have provided increased legal protections against sex discrimination.
One form of sex discrimination is wage discrimination in employment. In 1950 women’s hourly wages were 48 percent those of men; while the next fifty years brought improvement in the wage gap, by the year 2000 women’s hourly wage was 76 percent that of men. To address the wage discrimination problem, in 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which required equal pay for equal work. Since men and women typically work in different jobs, though, many groups have advocated comparable worth legislation that requires equal pay for similar work.
Additionally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination on the basis of sex, (as well as race, color, religion, and national origin). Title VII prohibited employment discrimination and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce these provisions. When the EEOC failed to act on sex discrimination claims, Bella Abzug and others formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 to push for implementation of the provision. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11375 requiring employers to take “affirmative action” to ensure that women were given full consideration for employment. Additionally, the Supreme Court first ruled sex discrimination to be illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause in 1971 in Reed v. Reed; the Court increased the level of protection given to women under the clause in Craig v. Boren (1976).
In 1985 Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, specifying sexual harassment as a form of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. The provision outlawed two forms of harassment: “quid pro quo” when employment status or terms are conditional on sexual favors, and the hostile work environment that results from harassment but need not involve salary or benefits. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the provision that conduct creating a hostile environment is the employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
While the legal protections adopted in the United States throughout the twentieth century have not eliminated sex discrimination entirely, it has been significantly lessened, and recourse is available to those who do become victims of discrimination.
Nancy E. McGlen, Karen O’Conner, Laura van Assendelft, and Wendy Gunther-Canada, Women, Politics and American Society, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 2004).
Maureen Rand Oakley
Last Updated: 2006