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Student Project: Appearance Policies as Sex Discrimination in the Workplace: Home

A guide to Title VII and sex stereotyping.

About the Topic

This research guide provides resources to assist in understanding Title VII's application to grooming and appearance policies. The guide distinguishes between the permissible and impermissible ways employers discriminate on the basis of sex.  This research guide enables such an analysis through the use of:

  • Statutes and Regulations
  • Landmark Supreme Court Case
  • Other Case Law
  • Secondary Sources
  • Current Awareness 

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins: An Overview

In 1989, the Supreme Court substantially expanded the scope of Title VII in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was one of eighty-eight candidates for partnership with the firm, but was the only woman. Hopkins successfully brought a Title VII suit, after she was allegedly denied the partnership position for not conforming to stereotypical notions of how a woman should act, dress, and behave. This historic and landmark case will be discussed in more depth in the section Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

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Overview: History and What is "Sex" in Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is the federal statute that was enacted to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  If an employer imposes sex-differentiated appearance and grooming standards that place a higher burden on one sex than the other, this is impermissible employment discrimination. Title VII provides the primary protection against sex discrimination. 


The word “sex” in “because of…sex” was added only two days before the bill’s passage in the House.   Without prior hearing or debate, an amendment offered by Representative Howard Smith, who opposed the civil rights bill but believed that if the underlying bill were to pass, the “sex” provision would be needed to protect white women competing with black women in the workplace. Thus, the Smith amendment explains how “sex” became part of Title VII, and for the first time in American history, private and public employers were prohibited from discrimination on the basis of sex in employment.

Initially, courts followed the plain language of the statute to determine the scope and meaning of “sex,” to interpret the “because of sex” provision of the amendment. Historically, discrimination “because of sex,” within Title VII, is discrimination on the basis of biological sex, and involves denying equal employment opportunities to women simply due to being born a woman. Judges look for evidence that an employer has treated all of its female employees worse than their male counterparts. However, gender discrimination plaintiffs did not always fit neatly into this binary gender form.  By the 1970s, courts began to struggle with discrimination claims brought by women who did not fit comfortably within a binary gender framework.  Employers subcategorized women by preferring certain "types" over others.

Appearance and Grooming Standards as Sex Discrimination

Currently, employers can permissibly use appearance to reinforce social norms and perpetuate the existence of sex stereotypes through sex-differentiated appearance and grooming codes. These practices are highly problematic because they force individuals to conform, and facilitate the judging of employees based on qualities unrelated to job performance.  

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Alexandra Lapes
B.S., New York University,
Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management

J.D. Candidate, May 2018; Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

Search Terms

Listed below are relevant research terms that may be used to conduct further research on this topic:

  • Sex Discrimination 
  • Title VII
  • Appearance and Grooming Policies
  • Sex Stereotyping

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