When Meagan H.’s supervisors at a Phoenix Chili’s Grill & Bar invited her to apply for a manager training program, she was thrilled. She loved her job as a server and was good at it.
Things began to go bad when Meagan appeared at a seminar regarding the company’s Certified Shift Leader program. A district manager saw her wearing a men’s button-down shirt, fitted pants and boat shoes and told Meagan’s general manager she had been “inappropriately dressed.”
After her interview for the promotion, her general manager told Meagan, “We really want to hire you,” but added that she needed to begin dressing “more gender appropriate.” She asked if she could wear a chef-style coat like the general manager was wearing, but he responded, “It’s for boys.”
As Meagan later learned, this wasn’t the first time she had been targeted. Her general manager had previously denied her a position as a bartender, telling co-workers that he “didn’t want a gay girl behind the bar” because it wouldn’t attract the “right kind” of customers. Meagan is indeed a lesbian, and she says that it does affect her wardrobe decisions.
Outraged and hurt, Meaghan felt compelled to quit.
Adverse decisions based on gender expression are discrimination
If this situation had occurred in California, there is no question it would be considered discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The FEHA explicitly includes gender expression and sexual orientation in its definition of discrimination.
Federal law also protects people from discrimination based on gender expression. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins that employers cannot rely on sex stereotypes about how people should dress or behave when making employment decisions. Such activity violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”
In fact, the Price Waterhouse case involved a woman who was told she wouldn’t make partner unless she acted and dressed “more femininely.”
Discrimination based on sexual orientation also prohibited
The federal courts have been somewhat divided on whether Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination “because of sex” includes sexual orientation discrimination. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII and is actively pursuing cases based on that position.
By our very nature, human beings come in nearly infinite varieties. There is nothing inherently male or female about a button-down shirt, fitted slacks and boat shoes. Even if there were, there is no law or regulation requiring women to wear only those clothes manufactured especially for them. In fact, both California and federal law prohibit employers from any such requirement.