Dilemma of the Month: Possible Gender Discrimination

Back Q&A Nov 30, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas
I have been in my current job for about one year. I have been working in my industry for eight years and have an MBA. When I applied, the minimum experience was two years. A new man has started in the development program, which is a higher level. I do more work and train him, yet he makes more money and has a higher title. Another male coworker (with less industry experience but who has been in the department longer than me) recently got a promotion. Management has spoken with him multiple times for trash-talking his manager and failing on deliverables. I have more industry experience and more education than both men. How am I not supposed to see this as gender discrimination?

At first glance, this seems like a cut-and-dry case of gender discrimination. You have more experience, you work harder and no one has to lecture you about trash-talking. You should be making more money.

With a deeper look, however, that may or may not be what is going on here. You never want to jump immediately to an accusation of discrimination until you’ve sorted everything out, so let’s do that. Here’s what I see.

You took a job below your current level

They wanted at least two years; you have eight and an MBA. You were super qualified for the job — some might say overqualified. Did you settle for this job? Did you negotiate a salary when you were hired? Did you apply for higher level jobs and not get them?

It’s truly fine to take a job that isn’t a stretch for you. Managers are smart to hire people who can jump in immediately and don’t need hand-holding, but ultimately, the decision to take the lower job was yours. That means it comes with a lower salary and a lower grade. You cannot expect a job that the company has budgeted for to suddenly become a higher job just because someone with more experience, like yourself, took it.

The new guy took a stretch job

How do I know? Because it’s a development program. Those are often reserved for people with potential, and part of the plan is to throw the employee in to either sink or swim. The hope is the employee will swim, but regardless, it’s stressful. Most development plans rotate the employee through positions every six, 12 or 18 months.

You didn’t take a stretch job. You didn’t sign up for the added stress of rotating through different positions and having to learn new things all the time. Now, it would look more like discrimination if this guy applied for the same position you had and they developed the rotational program solely for him. But, if that was the position posted, his gender is irrelevant.

The recently promoted guy has been there longer

Promoting based on longevity is super stupid, but tons of companies do it all the time. You’ve been there less than a year and may not even be eligible for a promotion based on company policy.

Your colleague has made some mistakes in his new job, such as bad-mouthing his current manager. Now, if he were bashing people before the promotion, that’s a sign of a bad promotion. But if he started afterward, that’s a different story. He may have never bashed a boss before because he has liked his bosses, so no one could predict this behavior. And if he was delivering before the promotion, his failures could be attributed to the new, harder job.

What if it’s still unfair?

If you’ve considered all of these things and still feel the problem is your gender, it might be. It’s impossible for me to tell from here. So, go to your boss and say, “Bill and Steve both have higher positions than I do, and I’m running circles around them. My performance is better, I work harder and you never have to reprimand me for bad behavior. What do I need to do to get promoted?”

If they don’t have an answer that makes sense, like, “You’re not eligible for promotion until you’ve been here 18 months,” then it’s time to pull out the gender card. “See, from where I sit, it seems an awful lot like gender discrimination. It’s probably not, but from the outside, it looks like it.”

Note that I’m being purposely nice here, not combative. Why? Because you don’t want to put them on the defensive. You’re much more likely to succeed when you work as a team. They should be able to explain the difference and if they can’t, you can file a complaint with HR. If you choose to go that route, be direct. Send an email documenting the problems and make the subject line: Official Complaint of Gender Discrimination. That phrase will make it clear that you’re not just doing a general salary whine.

Most likely, you’ll be able to sort this out quickly and easily — and hopefully, a promotion will be forthcoming. 


Visitor (not verified)December 2, 2016 - 9:25am

If, after following ELHR advice you don't have resolution, you may want to file with EEOC to investigate. "Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is federal agency administering and enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination based on an individual's race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, gender identity, genetic information, and retaliation for reporting, participating in, and/or opposing a discriminatory practice." - reference Wikipedia

Gail (not verified)December 12, 2016 - 8:18pm

While you are technically correct, the EEOC probably won't do much to help this person in this situation because they are always so backed up with complaints (and most of them are groundless but when unemployment is high that's the typical pattern). The one and only time our company received a letter from the EEOC letting us know that a complaint had been made, we responded immediately and the case was closed..... 3 years later.