How a Man Telling You to ‘Smile More’ May Not Be Merely Insulting, But Also Proof of Sex Discrimination in Violation of New York Law

Telling a coworker to “smile more” or generally exhorting someone to “smile!” might seem like an effort to encourage positivity but, for many women in the workplace, it comes across as something very different; namely, controlling, insulting, and sexist. The reality is that people in the workplace target comments like “smile” or “you should smile more” toward women far more often than men. Rather than benign, these comments may represent crucial proof in a woman’s workplace sex discrimination case. A knowledgeable New York City sex discrimination lawyer can help you assess how your facts may potentially be the foundation of a winning employment discrimination lawsuit.

S.E. was a woman and a physician who allegedly encountered that kind of illegal bias in her workplace. She wasn’t just any female doctor, either; she was a highly accomplished and board-certified specialist in rheumatology, having co-owned a successful medical practice for many years.

In 2014, she joined the health system of a major New York City university, assuming a role in the faculty practice group. Three years later, two vice presidents convened a meeting with the rheumatologist to discuss her “purportedly deteriorating relationships with her colleagues.” At that meeting, the vice presidents, both of whom were men, advised the physician that she should smile more at work.

Two years after that, the rheumatologist filed a formal complaint about inappropriate conduct, alleging “implicit bias in how she was ‘managed’ and spoken to.” That included a site director who had called the rheumatologist the B-word a month earlier and a senior director who spoke to the rheumatologist “in a mocking tone, making inappropriate gestures and implying that she was being histrionic.”

Less than a week later, the employer began accumulating a list of purported “issues” with the rheumatologist’s performance at work, most of which centered around supposedly inappropriate behavior and communications.

In 2021, the employer elected not to renew S.E.’s employment contract.

These facts were enough to present a viable claim of sex discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law, according to the federal district court for the Southern District of New York. The court explained that, while the NYCHRL is not intended to serve as a “general civility code,” inappropriate comments — even just one improper comment, in some situations — may be enough to demonstrate sex discrimination in violation of the NYCHRL.

Two Sets of Rules: One for Women and Another for Men

Under the NYCHRL, a target of discrimination needs only to establish that what she endured was something more than “petty slights or trivial inconveniences,” was related to her gender, and had a substantial enough impact to amount to a “different set of employment conditions than… male colleagues.”

S.E.’s assertions met that burden. As the court explained, the employer put forth “no reason to think that a male doctor who was short with coworkers would be reprimanded at all, including being told to ‘smile more’ at work, or that a male doctor who objected to sharing his office would be belittled the same way” that S.E. was.

Women Already ‘Smile More’

As one final footnote, a study of more than 500 women found that telling women to “smile” or “smile more” is a pervasive one. Almost every woman who answered the survey (98%) reported hearing that advice at least once. Fully 15% reported hearing it at least weekly. The occurrence is also widespread in the workplace. More than one-in-three (37%) of all women surveyed reportedly received advice from a male supervisor to smile more at work. High-achieving women aren’t immune from these comments, either. 36% of all “senior and executive-level” women encountered this suggestion.

In an ironic twist, researchers on a different project analyzed women and men and found that women already smile more than men. A lot more. According to the research, the average woman smiles more than 60 times each day. The average man? Eight times.

Women at work strive for many of the same things men do: to receive appropriate recognition for the quality of their work and to be treated with the proper level of respect owed to them. Too often, that doesn’t happen, with women addressed, counseled, and otherwise spoken to in a demeaning and disrespectful way. Sometimes, these comments rise to the level of illegal workplace discrimination. When that has happened to you, get in touch with the knowledgeable New York sex discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our attorneys have extensive experience helping women whose employers have treated male and female employees differently in ways that the city, state, and or federal law do not allow. To find out more, contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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