March is women’s history month – a great reason to take a look at the hard-won laws that aim to protect women in the workplace. While many women still struggle for true fairness at work, knowing the law can help in the ongoing push for equality.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The law prohibits employers from treating women differently due to their gender during any stage of work — from hiring to exiting.
According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employment “policy or practice that applies to everyone, regardless of sex, can be illegal if it has a negative impact on the employment of people of certain sex and is not job-related or necessary to the operation of the business.”
The #MeToo movement made sexual harassment a high-profile topic across the United States — but it’s been illegal for a long time. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act views sexual harassment as gender discrimination. This federal law applies to private companies or government agencies with 15 or more employees, but smaller businesses may be covered by similar local laws.
The EEOC defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace.
Sexual harassment is illegal when it is so “frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted),” according to the EEOC.
Although many victims of sexual harassment may first try to solve the problem internally with their employer, they do have the option of reporting sexual harassment to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or state agencies responsible for enforcing anti-harassment laws.
In the past, it was common for many companies to refuse to hire pregnant women or to fire them when they became pregnant. Thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women now have more protection against discrimination at work due to pregnancy.
Unfortunately, the law has some loopholes that allow many employers to fire pregnant women or place them on unpaid leave in certain cases. However, 23 states, the District of Columbia and four cities have passed laws attempting to close these loopholes by requiring some employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers.
In the U.S., there is no federally mandated paid maternity or paternity leave. However, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) requires employers to provide workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child, among other events.
The FMLA does not cover everyone. You may not be covered by it if you:
- Work for a very small company
- Have worked there for less than a year
- Have not worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year
- Are in the top 10% of earners at your company and it would be economically harmed by your absence
However, an increasing number of states are passing their own family and medical leave laws that may offer more protection.
The federal Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, prohibiting gender-based pay discrimination. Equal-pay law expanded in 2009 with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Nevertheless, it is often difficult for plaintiffs to prove wage discrimination under these laws and a pay gap persists, with women earning 77.9 cents for every dollar that men earn. In an effort to close this gap, many states have passed their own laws, some of which are stricter than federal statutes.