Backed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a female sales manager at a Harley-Davidson dealership based in Tampa, Florida, won $500,000 in punitive damages after being denied a promotion based on her sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A jury of eight unanimously found in her favor.
According to several former managers at the location, Cigar City Motors, part of the Ferman Automotive Group and owner of the Tampa dealership, had considered the plaintiff too “motherly” for the general manager position. Cigar City had never before promoted a female employee to general manager, evidence presented at trial showed.
“The jury’s verdict should serve as a wake-up call to the automotive industry, including Harley-Davison dealerships, that they are not exempt from federal laws which make workplace sex discrimination unlawful,” Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Miami District Office, said in a release. “It’s time for the ‘good old boy’ method of selecting general managers for their dealerships to be retired.”
This case is a good reminder that not all sex discrimination is based in cruel or hateful behavior. Benevolent sexism — “a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver)…,” according to discrimination experts Peter Glick and Susan Fiske — is equally subject to discrimination suits.
The sexism spotlight has been on unwanted, harassing behavior, which has been treated more seriously since the #MeToo movement gained steam in 2017. More recently, an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Andrew Cuomo released in early August showed a pattern of unwanted behavior toward female employees, including groping and sexual comments. Video game publisher Activision Blizzard made national attention when employees held a walk-out in late July over allegations of gender-based pay discrimination, sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
While such headlines are attention-grabbing and shocking, employers must keep in mind that benevolent sexism also violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can also hold employees back. Examples include employers giving easier tasks or less work to pregnant employees without it having been requested; assigning low-level event planning or coordinating tasks to female employees without such tasks having been outlined in their description, out of the assumption they are better at it; and, as in the case of Cigar City Motors, denying a promotion to a qualified female employee because she is “motherly” or exhibits another stereotypically feminine trait.
To combat benevolent sexism, employers can encourage employees to discuss it and point it out, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock wrote for Forbes.