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What is Gender Discrimination?

Around the world, individuals, businesses, governments, and other systems discriminate against people based on gender. Cis women and girls are the most recognized target, but trans people face significant gender discrimination, as well. Discrimination harms these groups and society as a whole. In this article, we’ll define gender and gender discrimination, provide three examples of gender discrimination in action, and explain its negative effects.

Gender discrimination occurs when a person is treated negatively or unequally based on their gender. It includes restricted access to education, jobs, and healthcare; unequal pay; sexual harassment; and much more.

What is gender?

Before we talk about gender discrimination, we need to know what “gender” is. The World Health Organization has a decent definition: “Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.” When society talks about “gender norms,” it’s referring to behaviors and roles associated with men, women, girls, and boys. While not inaccurate, the WHO’s definition is incomplete because it implies a kind of binary. There are more genders beyond men, women, girls, and boys. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research provides a fuller definition: “Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people.” In short, gender is a social construct that varies over time and across societies.

How is gender different from sex? The CIHR defines sex as “a set of biological attributes in humans and animals.” These attributes include chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. Sex is typically categorized as “male” or “female,” but even within sex, categories are more complex than a binary. People can identify with the gender typically associated with their sex (cisgender) or identify with a different gender (transgender). If someone doesn’t identify with an exclusively male or female gender, they may call themselves “non-binary.” If someone is flexible about the gender they identify as they may call themselves “gender fluid.” These identities are considered part of the trans community, but because gender is tied to personal identity and self-representation, there are no fixed rules or definitions. Courses like the ones on this list provide further education on topics like sex and gender.

What is gender discrimination and is it a violation of someone’s rights?

Gender discrimination is when someone is treated unequally and unfairly based on their gender identity. Like all discrimination, gender discrimination is a human rights violation, though the distinction between “gender” and “sex” is a more recent development. Take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example. Article 2 reads: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex [emphasis added], language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (emphasis added).” Article 2 covers sex discrimination, but it doesn’t mention gender. This is most likely because when the UDHR was written, gender and sex were considered the same. Times have changed. The phrase “other status” has been used to expand the rights given in Article 2. A press release from the UN describes how the organization and regional instruments have based changes on this phrase.

What does gender discrimination look like?

There are countless instances of gender discrimination fueling gender inequality and gender-based violence. Let’s take a closer look at three examples to see how gender discrimination touches every part of societies around the world:

Paying women less for the same work

The gender pay gap is a global issue. According to the International Labor Organization, women make about 20 cents less than men. There are factors like differences in jobs, education, skills, and experience, but gender discrimination is a significant factor, as well. In the United States, Lilly Ledbetter experienced this firsthand. For almost 20 years, Ledbetter worked in managerial positions at a Goodyear tire manufacturing plant. According to a write-up from the National Women’s Law Center, she faced sexual harassment and discrimination from her boss, who believed women shouldn’t work at the plant. Ledbetter also wasn’t allowed to talk about her salary, so it wasn’t until she got an anonymous note that she learned she was paid less than men in the same position. Ledbetter filed a lawsuit.

The court process was a rollercoaster. First, a jury decided in her favor, awarding her back pay and damages. Then, Goodyear tried to vacate the judgment. It eventually went to the Supreme Court where Goodyear prevailed. The majority reasoned that Ledbetter lost her right to sue for pay discrimination because she hadn’t brought her claim within 180 days of getting the first discriminatory check. This ruling ignored the fact that the discrimination was ongoing and, because of the secrecy around salaries, there was no way Ledbetter could have known she was being paid less. While she may have lost the court case, Ledbetter’s lawsuit led to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. It resets the 180-day filing period each time discrimination happens. When people work to establish laws like this, they help close the gender gap in Economic Participation and Opportunity.

Restricting education access for girls

Gender discrimination in education is one of the root causes of gender inequality worldwide. Without a good education, individuals are severely limited when it comes to job opportunities. The consequences fan out from there, making a person more vulnerable to poverty, violence, human trafficking, poor health, and more. Globally, girls tend to be targets of discrimination. What’s happened recently in Afghanistan is a prime example.

From 1996-2001, the Taliban did not let girls study. In August 2021, the Taliban regained control in the region and began restricting girls from school once again. At first, the militant fundamentalist group said it would let girls attend secondary school, but in 2022, they broke their promise. Girls had already shown up to their classrooms only to be turned away. The Taliban’s excuse? They were trying to decide on a school uniform. This is significant because back in 1996-2001, the Taliban didn’t technically outlaw education for girls. They kept saying school closures were temporary and that as soon as things were sorted out, girls could come back. That never happened. Now, people fear the same situation is unfolding today. There have also been restrictions at the university level. At Nangarhar University, girls are only allowed to choose from seven of the 13 faculties. They are not allowed to take subjects like engineering, economics, agriculture, veterinary medicine, and journalism. This is blatant gender discrimination.

Discriminating against trans people in healthcare settings

Trans people face significant gender discrimination. Some of the most consequential discrimination occurs in healthcare settings, which is a big reason why trans people are more vulnerable to health problems. In the largest study of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US, 19% of participants said they were denied care because of their gender identity. 28% reported harassment in medical settings and high levels of delaying care when hurt or sick because of the discrimination. Half of the participants also said they needed to educate their medical providers on transgender care.

Delaying care because of discrimination and trauma – as well as receiving poor medical treatment – worsen health outcomes for transgender people. A 2019 study from the CDC found that trans people were twice as likely as cisgender adults to receive depression diagnoses. They’re also at a higher risk for asthma and heart disease. This shows a clear link between discrimination and poor health. The medical field needs to address transphobia and ignorance if it wants to stop discriminating based on gender. Some of the courses on this list provide further information on gender and health.

How does gender discrimination hurt everyone?

Gender discrimination impacts a person’s health. According to research compiled in a Medical News Today article, women who reported gender discrimination within the year got higher scores on a depression screening tool. Women also experience higher risks for anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders. While men are more likely to die by suicide, women are 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide. The exact reason isn’t clear, but experts believe discrimination plays a role. Gender discrimination also intersects with issues involving race, class, religion, and more, which complicates and compounds the discrimination.

Gender inequality negatively affects everyone, not just its targets. In a study from the Global Early Adolescent Study, gender stereotypes hurt both boys and girls. Boys are often taught to deal with their issues using violence. They’re also less equipped to handle difficult emotions, which could explain why men are more likely to die by suicide. When gender stereotypes exist, anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotypes – whether they’re women, men, or non-binary – faces discrimination. Still not sure of how significant gender discrimination is? It leads to gender inequality, which hurts a nation’s economy. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, gender discrimination in social institutions leads to a $6 trillion loss for the global economy. When everyone is allowed full economic freedom and opportunities, it makes sense that the whole economy – and not just individuals and families – benefits. For the sake of everyone in society, ending gender discrimination is essential.

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.