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Sex discrimination at work: Professor shifts focus of debate

Over the past several years, a debate has raged in the media and among the general public concerning the issue of sexual discrimination in the modern American workplace. Most recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to “Lean In” within the workforce in order to become more capable and successful leaders.

There is little question that “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” and other books like it offer some interesting food for thought. However, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment are so pervasive in the American workplace that it is difficult for many women to focus on how to “Lean In” when they are being kept busy trying not to lose their jobs as a result of illegal discrimination and harassment.

Recently, a well-respected law professor redirected the conversation away from leadership strategies in order to focus on how women affected by discrimination can deal with this illegal behavior. It takes bravery to seek out leadership in the workplace. But it arguably takes an elevated level of bravery to tackle sex discrimination and harassment within a workplace that may shun the very notion of women as leaders.

Women facing workplace discrimination should understand first and foremost that the law is on their side. Discrimination can leave affected workers feeling isolated and virtually powerless. However, speaking with an experienced attorney about your situation may help you to understand that you likely have options and are entitled to protection from such treatment.

Professor Joan Williams is currently teaching Americans about the fact that women being affected by workplace discrimination are often asked to prove that their situation is harmful over and over. However, the workplace does not need to be this way. When women speak up and speak out with the help of legal professionals, change can happen. It can even happen in such significant ways that the national discussion may eventually be able to focus more completely on women’s leadership issues because all women will be given a fair chance to thrive in the American workplace.

Source: New Scientist, “Be a player, hate the game: Beating sex discrimination,” Jessica Hamzelou, May 2014

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