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10.3 Discrimination: Inferiority versus Aptness

Discrimination in the workplace moves in two directions. One is hierarchical, one group or another is stereotyped as simply superior or inferior. Historically, many cases of race discrimination fit on this scale. Discrimination can also move horizontally, however. In this case, divisions are drawn between different groups not so much in terms of general capability, but as naturally suited for some and naturally unsuited for other tasks and occupations. Gender discrimination frequently fits into this category.

Here’s a list of professions where the workers are more than 90 percent women:

  • Dental hygienists
  • Preschool and kindergarten teachers
  • Secretaries and administrative assistants
  • Dental assistants
  • Speech-language pathologists
  • Nurses
  • Child-care workers
  • Hairstylists and cosmetologists
  • Receptionists and information clerks
  • Payroll clerks

And another where the workers are 99 percent (not a typo) male:

  • Logging workers
  • Automotive body repairers
  • Cement masons
  • Bus and truck mechanics
  • Electrical power-line installers and repairers
  • Tool and die makers
  • Roofers
  • Heavy vehicle equipment service technicians
  • Home appliance repairers
  • Crane and tower operators

The lists come from a blog called The Digerati Life.Silicon Valley Blogger, “Traditional Jobs for Men and Women and the Gender Divide,” The Digerati Life (blog), May 29, 2007, accessed May 27, 2011, The author is a software engineer living in Silicon Valley. Because she’s a she, 78 percent of her colleagues don’t use the same bathroom.Claire Cain Miller, “Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley,” New York Times, April 17, 2010, accessed May 31, 2011,

What Exactly Is Gender Discrimination?

Gender discrimination defines analogously with the racial version:

  1. An employment decision—hiring, promoting, demoting, firing—adversely or positively affects an employee or applicant
  2. The decision is based on the person’s gender rather than individual merit.
  3. The decision rests on unverified stereotypes or generalizations about members of that gender.

The difference, again, is that the stereotypes and generalizations tending to surround women in the United States during our lifetimes have branded the group as naturally suited to some types of work and not others; and, correspondingly, men also find their natural roles pointing in some directions and not others. This division of labor raises provocative questions. More sparks fly when two other factors add to the mix: concrete and broad statistics showing that women receive lower wages than men when doing distinct but comparable work; and women who do pursue career lines dominated by men can find their advance up the promotion ladder halted by a difficult-to-see barrier, a kind of glass ceiling.

So three ethical issues connecting with gender discrimination in the workplace are occupational segregation, comparable worth, and the glass ceiling.

Occupational Segregation: The Causes

What causes occupational segregationThe division of jobs into those appropriate for women and those for men.? One explanation is biologicalThe belief that men and women are fundamentally different in terms of basic aspirations and capabilities.. Differences, the reasoning goes, that are plainly visible physically also exist on the level of desires and aspirations. Women and men are simply divergent; they pursue distinct goals, define happiness in separate ways, and tend to have dissimilar kinds of abilities. For all those reasons, women gravitate to different kinds of professions. Now, if all those things are true, then we should expect to see just what we do see: significant occupational segregation.

The biological explanation also functions less directly when career paths and family paths conflict. Women who physically carry children find themselves removed—willingly or not—from work for significant periods. If you see that coming in your not-distant future, then you may opt into a field where that kind of absence is less damaging to the company and your own long-term prospects.

One clean argument against the biological explanation for gender segregation in the workforce starts with the suspicion that visible physical differences may be leading us to mistakenly believe that there are underlying psychological differences where few actually exist. People, the reasoning goes, are making an invalid argument when they suppose that because women and men look different on the outside, they must be different on the inside too. There’s no reason that’s necessarily true, just like there’s no reason to think that a Cadillac painted blue and one painted pink are going to perform differently on the road.

A second and frequently cited explanation for occupational segregation is social precedentThe belief that ingrained customs and habits explain divergent career paths for men and women.. Young men and women making career decisions normally have very limited experience in the workplace and so depend on what others have done. It’s very reasonable, therefore, for a young man trying to decide between, say, going to work as an assistant to a dentist and going to assist a roofer to notice that a lot of other guys are working on roofs, but not many are in dentists’ offices. Women see the same thing, and the occupational segregation that already exists in society gets repeated. In this case, it’s the individual men and women themselves who are effectively volunteering for professional separation.

A third explanation—and the one drawing the sharpest ethical attention—is discriminatory prejudice. Those in charge of hiring stack the deck to favor one gender over another because of unverified generalizations about differences between men and women. In his book Business Ethics, Manual Velasquez relates an experiment done by the ABC news program Primetime Live. Two early careerists—Chris and Julie—were outfitted with hidden microphones and tiny cameras and sent out to answer the same help-wanted ads. Their experiences were for TV entertainment, not a scientific study, but they do illustrate how discriminatory occupational segregation can work.Manuel Velasquez, Manual Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002), 306.

Both she and he were in their midtwenties, blond, and attractive. They presented virtually identical résumés, and both claimed to have management experience. What they got from their interviewers, however, was very different. When Julie appeared at one company, the recruiter spoke only of a position answering phones. The same day the same recruiter offered Chris a management job. In a gotcha-follow-up interview, the flustered recruiter told the camera that he’d never want a man answering his phone.

Another instance wasn’t quite so clear-cut. The two visited a lawn-care company. Julie received a typing test, some casual questions about her fiancé, and was offered a job as a receptionist. Chris’s interview included an aptitude test, some casual talk about keeping the waistline trim, and a job offer as a territory manager. When confronted in his gotcha interview, the owner strongly defended his actions by pointing out that being a manager at a lawn-care service means actually doing some of the outdoor work; and Chris—an objectively stronger candidate in the physical sense—seemed more apt for that. The question to ask here—and it’s one that comes up time and again in discussions of occupational segregation—is the extent to which the outdoor work requirement is a legitimate reason for hiring Chris or an excuse for excluding Julie (because the owner doesn’t believe women should be in that line of work).

The Ethics of Women’s—and Men’s—Work

What kind of ethical arguments can be mounted for and against the idea that occupational segregation ought to exist? Possibly the strongest argument in favor runs through a utilitarian theory—one that judges as ethically correct any act that raises a society’s overall happiness. The theory’s cutting edge is the requirement that individual interests be sacrificed if that serves the greater good. For example, occupations requiring hard physical strength (firefighter, logger, construction) may require strength tests. These tests, which more or less measure brute power, are going to weed out most women—so many, in fact, that it may make practical sense to essentially designate the job as a male realm, and to do so even though it may be unfair to a very few physically strong women. That unfairness is erased, in ethical terms, by the requirement that the general welfare be served.

There are a number of responses to this argument. One is to say that the general position of firefighter should be open to everyone, but every firehouse should make sure there are a few big guys in the mix in case smoke-inhalation victims need to be carried down perilous ladders. Another response is to concede that there are some occupations that may be right for one or another gender but draw the line firmly there and demand equal opportunity everywhere else. Another, more polemical argument is to assert that the goal of a gender-neutral society is so important and worthwhile that if it means sacrificing performance in some occupations, then the sacrifice should be made. The greater good is better served by occupational equality than by the certainty that the 250-pound weight-lifting guy will be the one who happens to be in the firehouse when the alarm goes off even if it goes off because it’s your apartment that’s on fire.

Another way to argue against occupational segregation of any kind, no matter the circumstances, starts from rights theory and the premise that the highest ethical value is personal freedom and opportunity: what’s always recommendable is maximizing our ability to pursue happiness as each of us sees fit. Within this model, it becomes directly unethical to reserve some jobs for women and others for men because that setup limits both men and women; it impinges on their basic freedom.

Like utilitarian theory, this freedom-based argument can be twisted around to work in the other direction. If individual freedom is the highest ethical good, the reasoning goes, then shouldn’t business owners be able to hire whomever they like? There may be an owner out there who simply doesn’t want to hire guys. Perhaps there’s no rational reason for the exclusion, but if individual freedom is the highest good, there’s no strong ethical response to the preference. The only open pathway is to say that if you don’t like the fact that this owner isn’t hiring men, then you should make your own company and you can hire as many of them as you wish.

Comparable Worth

Going back to the list of gender-concentrated occupations, some on the women’s side really aren’t so different from those on the men’s side in terms of skill and training required, effort exerted, and responsibility held. Take hairstylists and cosmetologists from the woman’s list and automotive body repairers from the guy’s list. While it’s true that a lot of the hairdressers wouldn’t be caught dead working in the body shop and vice versa, their jobs really aren’t so different: fixing hair and giving cars makeovers. The wages are different, though, at least according to statistics that come from the San Jose Mercury News. Doing hair will net you about $20,000 a year, and working in the car shop gets you $35,000.Silicon Valley Blogger, “Traditional Jobs for Men and Women and the Gender Divide,” The Digerati Life (blog), May 29, 2007, accessed May 27, 2011,

This reality is at odds with the doctrine of comparable worthDictates that distinct occupations requiring comparable levels of skill, training, and effort and responsibility should be rewarded with comparable salaries., which states that when two occupations require comparable levels of skill, training, effort, and responsibility, they should be rewarded with comparable salaries. The gender problem associated with comparable worth is that statistical evidence suggests that so-called women’s work has consistently garnered lower wages than men’s work. The hairdresser and the body shop example isn’t an anomaly but a representative of the larger reality. According to the US government, the median income of American working women is $27,000, while for men it is $39,000. More, the differences hold when adjusting for educational levels. For high school grads, it is $21,000 versus $32,000. For college grads, it’s $40,000 versus $60,000. At the PhD level, it’s $55,000 versus $78,000.“Table PINC-03. Educational Attainment—People 25 Years Old and Over, by Total Money Earnings in 2005, Work Experience in 2005, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin and Sex,” Current Population Survey (CPS), accessed May 31, 2011,

These statistics don’t tell the whole story, however; they never do. As it happens, statistician is one of those professions where there’s a notable pay gap between genders—$49,000 versus $36,000 as a median salary—and women get the $49,000.Jeanne Sahadi, “39 Jobs Where Women Make More than Men,”, February 28, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011,

Glass Ceiling

What happens when a woman goes into a field traditionally dominated by men and starts strong, receiving salary and treatment comparable with her male workmates but then hits a promotion wall? Called the glass ceilingAn unacknowledged block on the advance of qualified people—especially women—to high posts in an organization., it’s the experience of women topping off in their career for, apparently, no reason beyond the womanhood. A good example of the glass ceiling—and also of breaking it—comes from Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of the very masculine Hewlett-Packard. In an interview with the web magazine Salon, she discusses the topic candidly. Five of her ideas come through loudly.Rebecca Traister, “The Truth about Carly,” Salon, October 19, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011,

First, in Silicon Valley Fiorina believes there is a glass ceiling at many companies.

Second, she buys the notion that women and men are fundamentally different, at least in this way: they feel comfortable with different kinds of languages and ways of communicating. Compared with Silicon Valley guys, she says, “Women tend to be more communicative, collaborative, expressive. The stylistic differences get in the way [of mutual understanding]. That’s why diversity in the workplace takes real work.”Rebecca Traister, “The Truth about Carly,” Salon, October 19, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011,

Third, differences in the way women and men communicate ultimately doom many women’s professional ascent. As the office culture becomes increasingly male on the way up, women are decreasingly able to communicate with and work well with colleagues.

Fourth, Fiorina believes that given the way things are now in Silicon Valley, if a woman wants to break through to the highest echelons of management, she’s probably going to have to learn male rules, and then play by them. For example, she once pulled on cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, stuffed socks down her crotch, and marched into a hall full of (mostly) men to proclaim, “Our balls are as big as anyone’s in this room!” In the Salon interview, she explains it this way:

Fiorina: Part of the reason I succeeded in Silicon Valley was that I talked to people in a language they understood. When I negotiated in Italy, I ate a lot of pasta and drank a lot of wine. In bringing a team together to focus on a common goal, you have to find common language.
Interviewer: And the language of the business world remains male?
Fiorina: Yes, and particularly that case you cited, it was an incredibly male-dominated, macho culture. They understood balls and boots, they understood what that meant.Rebecca Traister, “The Truth about Carly,” Salon, October 19, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011,

Fifth, in the medium to long term, Fiorina believes the way to truly demolish the glass ceiling is for women to work their way up (like she did) and occupy more high-level posts. “When I went to HP,” she says, “I hoped I was advancing women in business by putting women in positions of responsibility. But it’s clear that we don’t yet play by the same rules and it’s clear that there aren’t enough women in business, and the stereotypes will exist as long as there aren’t enough of us.”Rebecca Traister, “The Truth about Carly,” Salon, October 19, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011,

The Special Case of Motherhood

One advantage Carly Fiorina had on the way up was a husband who cooperated extensively in rearing her children. Still, women alone physically bear children and frequently hold principal responsibility for their care at least through the breast-feeding stage or further. For that reason, a discrete area of business ethics has been carved out for managing the tension between the legitimate interest businesses have in employees continuing their labors without the occasional childbearing and rearing interruption, and the legitimate interest professional women and society generally hold in motherhood and in ensuring that a healthy generation will be arriving to take over for the current one.

One proposal has been the creation of a dual-track career system: one for women who plan to have children at some point in the not-so-distant future and another for those who either do not plan to have children or envision someone else as assuming primary child-care responsibility (a husband, a relative, a paid nanny). Under this scenario, companies would channel women planning for motherhood and child rearing into positions where work could be interrupted for months or even years and then resumed more or less from the same spot. A potential mother would receive an at least informal guarantee that her spot would be held for her during the absence, and upon resumption of duties, her career would continue and advance as though there had been no interruption. In fact, in many European countries including Spain, France, and Germany, such leave is actually required by law. In those countries, the birth of a child automatically qualifies one of the parents (the laws generally treat fathers and mothers indiscriminately as caregivers) for an extended leave with the guarantee of job resumption at the end of the period. Laws in the United States are not so worker oriented (as opposed to business oriented), though some companies have taken the initiative to offer extended parental absences without adverse career effects. These include Abbott Laboratories, General Mills, IKEA, and others.

Theoretically, granting professional leaves for the fulfillment of parental responsibilities makes sense. The problem is that in the real world and in many industries, it’s nearly impossible to go away for a long time and then resume responsibilities seamlessly. In the interim, projects have been completed and new ones have begun, clients have changed, subordinates have been promoted, managers have moved on, and the organization’s basic strategies have transformed. Reinsertion is difficult, and that leads to the fear that companies and managers—even those with the best intentions—will end up channeling those they presume will seek parental leaves into less important roles. The potential mother won’t be the one chosen to pursue research on the company’s most exciting new product—even if she’s the best researcher—because the firm won’t be able to just put product development on hold at some point in the future while she’s away. The end result is that the so-called mommy track for professional life becomes the dead end track.

There are no easy solutions to this problem, though there are ways to limit it. Technology can be a major contributor. Just something as simple as Skype can allow parents at home with young children to “come into” the office regularly. Further, companies can, and increasingly are, providing day care facilities in the building.

Ethically, one way to manage the conflict between professional life and parenting is to locate the interests of those involved, set them on a scale, and attempt to determine how the issue weighs out. So, who are the primary stakeholders along the mommy track: whose interests should be considered and weighed? The mother, to begin with, has a right to pursue success in professional life, and she has the choice to embark on motherhood. A born child has a right to nurturing care, and to the love parents give. A business owner has a right to hire employees (and fire) employees in accord with rational decisions about what will benefit the organization and help it reach its goals. The coworkers and subordinates linked to a prospective parent have the right to not be bounced around by someone else’s personal choices. Society as a collective has a responsibility to nurture the growth of a new generation fit to replace those who are getting old.

The next step is to put all that on the scale. In the United States today, the general consensus is that the business owners’ rights to pursue economic success outweigh the parents’ interest in being successful in both professional and family life and society’s concern for providing an upcoming generation. That weighing can be contrasted with the one done in most countries of Western Europe where, not incidentally, populations are shrinking because of low birthrates. In Europe, there’s a broad consensus that the workers’ interest in combining professional and personal lives, along with society’s interest in producing a next generation, outweighs the business’s interest in efficiency and profit. For that reason, the already-mentioned laws guaranteeing extended family leave have been implemented.

Key Takeaways

  • Gender discrimination can take the form of occupational segregation.
  • Strong ethical arguments may be formed for and against some forms of occupational segregation.
  • The doctrine of comparable worth prescribes comparable pay for distinct occupations that require similar capability levels.
  • The glass ceiling blocks women from advancing to the highest professional levels for reasons outside of dedication and capability.
  • The fact that women can also be mothers introduces a broad set of ethical questions about the rights of employers and a society’s priorities.

Review Questions

  1. What are the three steps defining gender discrimination?
  2. What are some of the causes of occupational segregation?
  3. What is an argument in favor of some occupational segregation? What is an argument against occupational segregation?
  4. What is comparable worth?
  5. What are two explanations for the existence of a glass ceiling?
  6. How might the existence of a career track dedicated to those who expect to rear children be criticized in ethical terms?