New Jersey gender discrimination statutes protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. An important feature of many types of sex discrimination is “sex stereotyping,” meaning the use of stereotypes commonly associated with one gender to assess an employee’s performance or a job applicant’s suitability for a job. Many cases deal with sex stereotyping as a way of penalizing an employee who fails to embody outward stereotypes, such as a female employee who an employer thinks appears too masculine, or a male employee who appears feminine. A recent study addresses another aspect of sex stereotyping that could lead to workplace discrimination: the association of traits like confidence and intelligence with men, leading to more negative impressions of women possessing those same traits.
The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sex stereotyping as a form of sex discrimination in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The plaintiff in that case alleged that the defendant passed her over for partnership because she did not conform to various feminine stereotypes. While partners at the firm praised the plaintiff’s ability to do her job, they also stated that her “aggressiveness apparently spilled over into abrasiveness.” Id. at 234. These traits, however, were not necessarily viewed as negatives in male employees. The court held that employers may not “evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.” Id. at 251.
The Third Circuit addressed sex stereotyping of male employees in a case involving a self-described “effeminate man” who did not “fit in” with his “rough around the edges” male coworkers. Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc., 579 F.3d 285, 287 (3rd Cir. 2009). He alleged a lengthy pattern of workplace harassment, including the use of nicknames like “Princess,” “Rosebud,” and others best not repeated. The defendant sought to dismiss the case on the ground that the plaintiff, who is gay, was actually making “an artfully pleaded claim of sexual orientation discrimination,” which the Third Circuit has found not to be covered under federal law. Id. at 291. See also Bibby v. Phila. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 260 F.3d 257 (3rd Cir. 2001). The court found, however, that the plaintiff’s claim centered on discrimination “because he did not conform to [the defendant’s] vision of how a man should look, speak, and act,” rather than his sexual orientation itself. Prowel at 292.