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Tenth Circuit Says Female Employee Who "Butted Heads" With Management Was Fired Based on Gender Stereotype

    Client Alerts
  • May 09, 2014
Title VII prohibits a number of different forms of sex discrimination in employment. Gender stereotyping claims have been a growing source of litigation, where plaintiffs allege that they were disciplined or terminated due to their failure to adhere to commonly accepted gender norms. Many of these cases involve situations where an employee dresses or behaves in a non-traditional manner, especially where questions over sexual orientation arise.
However, other types of gender stereotyping cases deal with questions over male and female business approaches. Aggressive behavior may be applauded for male employees, but when displayed by female co-workers, it can be viewed as bossy or otherwise inappropriate. When this difference in perception leads to different outcomes in terms of performance evaluations, litigation can result.
In Potter v. Synerlink Corp., a new unpublished decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiff was the only female regional salesperson in the company.  After several years of top sales and lauded performance, she began clashing with management over her reluctance to give up accounts to a newly formed sales territory. These disputes ultimately led to her termination, and she sued for sex discrimination, claiming that male salespersons had voiced similar objections, but had not been terminated as a result.
The Tenth Circuit agreed, reversing a grant of summary judgment for the employer. It rejected the employer’s contention that the plaintiff was fired for not being a “team player.” She introduced testimony from multiple male sales managers who disclosed that they had argued with management over changes in sales territories and customer assignment.  These disputes led to negotiation and compromise, not termination of the complaining male employees.
This does not mean that the employer terminated the plaintiff due to her gender, but it raises sufficient questions of pretext for the reasoning offered to allow the claim to go to a jury for trial. Male managers may not realize that their decisions with regard to employees under their supervision can be influenced by common perceptions with regard to differences in acceptable behavior between males and females. When these differences appear based on cultural norms or stereotypes, the resulting employment decisions can form the basis of sex discrimination claims. Employers should be aware of potential bias in these areas, and should work to make certain that similar workplace conduct and performance are consistently treated. If legitimate business reasons exist for different treatment, these need to be thoroughly reviewed and documented to assure that they can be defended against claims that the differences were gender related.