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Gender Discrimination 101: Meaning, Examples, Ways to Take Action

Every day around the world, gender discrimination impacts girls, women, and anyone who doesn’t fit into society’s idea of what a “man” and “woman” should be. Discrimination threatens a person’s access to career opportunities, good healthcare, housing, justice, safety and much more. In this article, we’ll explore the basics of gender discrimination, including what it means, what it can look like and how you can take action to end it.

Gender discrimination is the unjust and unequal treatment of individuals and groups based on gender. It primarily affects girls and women, but because it’s based on restrictive gender norms and prejudices, it hurts everyone. The gender pay gap, job segregation and gender-based violence are just a few examples of gender discrimination. 

What is gender discrimination?

Gender discrimination is the act of giving unequal rights, treatment and opportunities to a person or a group based on their gender. Anyone can be the target of gender discrimination, but girls and women are primarily affected. As the “inferior sex,” the needs and interests of girls and women have been systematically oppressed and dismissed for centuries. Entrenched prejudices, restrictive gender norms and institutionalized discrimination have led to widespread gender inequality.

Gender discrimination impacts every area of society. According to the UN, there are 122 women aged 25-34 living in extreme poverty, compared to every 100 men from the same age group. In power and leadership, there are wide gaps. The next generation of women will spend, on average, 2.3 more hours every day on unpaid work and domestic work compared to men. On a global level, women hold only 26.7% of seats in parliament, 35.5% in local government and 28.2% in management positions. Without increased investments and commitment to gender equality, it could take the world about 300 years to achieve gender parity.

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What can gender discrimination look like?

Gender discrimination is a multifaceted system of oppression touching every area of society. Here are seven examples of what it can look like:

Paying someone less because of their gender 

Around the world, women are paid less than men for doing comparable work. In the United States, the gender pay gap has changed very little even as the problem gets increased attention. According to Pew Research, women earned about 80% as much as men in 2002, while in 2022, they earned 82%. That same year, the World Bank found that out of 178 countries, just 95 protect equal pay for equal work. Gender discrimination also factors into how certain types of work are undervalued. Returning to the United States as an example, research from the Economic Policy Institute found that 2.2 million domestic workers are underpaid, three times as likely to live in poverty than other workers and unprotected by labor laws. 90.2% of those domestic workers were women, specifically Black, Hispanic, or Asian American and Pacific Islander women.

Segregating types of work based on gender

The prevalence of women in underpaid and unprotected domestic work is an example of gendered job segregation. Job segregation leads to male domination in fields like engineering and construction, while women tend to fill jobs in domestic work, nursing, teaching and other “feminine” careers. Employers rarely say they only want men or women applying to certain jobs, but discrimination takes many forms. In a report on the “glass ceilings” women encounter in business, the International Labour Organization describes how gender bias, which affects how women and men are viewed, leads to men getting more responsibility and promotions over women. This applies even when men and women have similar skills and experience. According to the Center for American Progress, when a marginalized group – like women – is overrepresented in a job field, it leads to reduced wages and worse working conditions for everyone in that field.

Purposely misgendering someone

Cisgender women and girls aren’t the only people affected by gender discrimination. Trans people, which includes trans women, trans men, non-binary people and others, are often targeted. Intentional misgendering is just one form of discrimination. What does it mean? Misgendering is when a person uses the wrong pronoun for someone, e.g. calling someone “she” when they use “he/him” pronouns. When someone is repeatedly corrected and still insists on using the wrong pronoun, that’s discrimination. Whether or not misgendering breaks a law depends on where you live. In Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Code added protection for gender identity and expression in 2012. The law now recognizes misgendering as a form of discrimination, especially in areas covered by the Code, like employment, housing and educational services.

Discriminating against someone for becoming pregnant

According to global data from 2021, 38 out of 190 economies don’t protect women from being fired for being pregnant. Even in places that do provide legal remedies, the discrimination continues, but it’s more subtle. The United States has three federal laws that protect job applicants and employees, but in a 2019 New York Times article, journalists found that some of the country’s biggest companies were engaging in discrimination. Pregnant women were passed over for promotions and raises, and fired when they complained. In jobs that included physical labor, like lifting heavy boxes, pregnant women were not given reasonable accommodations like rest or extra water. Because pregnancy primarily impacts women, pregnancy discrimination is a form of gender discrimination that limits job opportunities, access to justice and so on.

Sexually harassing someone in the workplace

Everyone deserves a safe workplace free from discrimination. Unfortunately, work is often a place where people’s rights are threatened. According to a global analysis, almost 23% of people experience physical, psychological or sexual violence and harassment at work. Women are more likely to share their experiences than men and more likely to report sexual harassment, but regardless of a person’s gender, harassment in the workplace is discrimination. Because many people never report the harassment they’ve faced, the true numbers are likely much higher. Protections vary by country, but in the United States, harassment can include requests for sexual favors, making unwanted sexual remarks and making unwelcome sexual advances. The law also defines harassment as “offensive remarks about a person’s sex.” It doesn’t need to be overtly sexual. Sexual harassment can involve anyone, including two people of the same gender.

Ending gender discrimination is critical to achieving gender equality. Check out this article on what gender equality is.

Limiting educational opportunities because of gender

Whether or not someone gets a good education has a huge impact on the rest of their life. According to the World Bank, every extra year of schooling results in a 9% increase in hourly earnings, while it also improves economic growth, innovation and social cohesion. Girls have historically been restricted from educational opportunities, but while there’s been significant progress, the gap isn’t closed yet. UNICEF estimates that about 129 million girls aren’t in school. Strict gender norms about girls, motherhood, and work factor into why many girls aren’t educated, but conflict, poor hygiene and sanitation at schools, and poverty are responsible, too. Discrimination isn’t always intentional, but when girls and women are the ones primarily not getting an education, it still counts.

Inflicting violence based on gender 

Gender-based violence is the most deadly form of gender discrimination. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence, usually inflicted by an intimate partner. The intentional murder of women and girls, known as “femicide,” is prevalent globally. 2022 marked the highest number of total intentional femicides. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people are also targeted. In 2023, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation reported yet another year of disproportionate killings of trans people. Most victims were young people of color, specifically Black trans women. Accurate numbers are hard to come by as killings are underreported. Misgendering by police and the media also makes it hard to identify victims.

How can you take action against gender discrimination?

Gender discrimination may feel embedded in society, but we can take action against it. Here are three ways:

Create safe spaces where people can talk about gender discrimination

It’s difficult to get a full picture of gender discrimination because talking about it is still so stigmatized. In some places, talking about topics like workplace harassment, sexual assault and intimate partner violence can put people’s jobs and even physical safety in jeopardy. One of the best things you can do is create and protect spaces where it’s safe to talk about discrimination. These spaces empower people to share their stories, support each other, collaborate and build networks that make real change in their communities. Spaces like survivor groups, internet safety classes, self-defense classes and so on can be good forums.

Support women’s organizations

Many governments are working to improve gender equality, but their current efforts aren’t enough. There are many NGOs around the world addressing poverty, children’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights and other issues that connect to gender discrimination. You can support these organizations by donating money, volunteering your time, sharing campaigns or applying for jobs. If you’re interested in establishing your own NGO focused on gender discrimination, here’s our article on how to start an NGO.

Increase leadership and economic opportunities for women

The gap between male and female leadership, economic and political opportunities is still quite wide. You can take action by focusing your efforts on things that empower girls and women, such as education, healthcare, mentorship and training, childcare, workplace protections and so on. When women are empowered, everyone benefits, including men, families and children. To learn more about women’s empowerment, check out this list of eight classes available online.

Need more ideas on how to stop gender discrimination? Check out our article here.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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