Appearance-based Sex Discrimination and Stereotyping in the Workplace: Whose Conduct Should We Regulate?


Court treatment of sex discrimination and harassment claims based on appearance and gender stereotyping has been inconsistent, particularly where the facts involve reference to sexual orientation. Ironically, court willingness to allow such claims may turn on the choice of verbal or physical conduct by, or the sex or sexual orientation of, the alleged offenders. Because plaintiffs in such situations may assert retaliation claims to increase their chances of prevailing, employers should focus less on regulating aspects of personal appearance unrelated to job performance and more on problematic reactions by co-workers. Workplace civility policies may hold promise for limiting both legal liability and practical consequences in the absence of a legislative response.

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  1. 1.

    Harrah’s policy included the requirement that women’s hair “must be teased, curled, or styled every day you work,” an explicit makeup requirement for women mandating that “make up (foundation/concealer and/or face powder, as well as blush and mascara) must be worn and applied neatly in complimentary colors,” and that “lip color must be worn at all times.” To enforce its policy, Harrah’s required employees to attend “Personal Best Image Training” at which “Image Facilitators” gave women a makeover to get them “properly” made up. Harrah’s then instructed employees on adherence to the standards, took portrait and full body photographs of each employee looking their “Personal Best,” placed these photographs in the employee’s personnel file, distributed them to the employee’s supervisor, and used them as the standard to which the employee would be held accountable on a daily basis.

  2. 2.

    The much-discussed Hooters litigation, in which male applicants challenged Hooters’ practice of hiring only attractive, well-endowed women to be food and beverage servers, was settled prior to judicial determination in the midst of an EEOC investigation. Playboy clubs, which won the right to utilize such practices before the now-defunct New York Human Rights Appeal Board, had long since ceased to exist before a recent comeback in Las Vegas.

  3. 3.

    Sex refers to biological sex attributes, such as chromosomes and genitalia. Gender refers to characteristics typically associated with masculinity or femininity, such as dress, tone of voice, hobbies, and personality traits. Sexual orientation is determined by the sex of the desired object of one’s affections. Gender identity refers to a person’s self identity; i.e., whether the person thinks of himself or herself as a male or a female (Greenberg 2003).

  4. 4.

    Although it has become commonplace for gender stereotype and same-sex cases to include derivative retaliation claims (e.g., Lynch v. Baylor University 2006; Miller v. Kellogg 2006; Slagle v. County of Clarion 2006), their ultimate success rate remains to be determined, and they raise numerous questions that complicate an already confusing area. For example, does ensuing conduct need to differ in kind or intensity to support a retaliation claim? Can prior conduct continue but still be found causally related to protected activity? Will prior cases holding that a lowered performance rating without tangible consequences is not actionable now come into question if the threat of such action might “dissuade a reasonable person” from filing a Title VII complaint or opposing illegal conduct? Will sensitive (or clever) employees take to filing “good faith” but minor complaints to gain “protected” status under various anti-retaliation laws? A full treatment of these developing issues is beyond the scope of this article.

  5. 5.

    Judge Pragerson also notes that the policy, as prima facie discriminatory, could hardly be upheld as a business necessity under the BFOQ doctrine given that Harrah’s had “quietly disposed of” its policy after Jespersen sued.


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Correspondence to Stan Malos.

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Malos, S. Appearance-based Sex Discrimination and Stereotyping in the Workplace: Whose Conduct Should We Regulate?. Employ Respons Rights J 19, 95–111 (2007).

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Key words

  • workplace appearance
  • sex discrimination
  • gender stereotyping
  • sexual orientation
  • retaliation
  • workplace civility