BFOQ and Gender Discrimination – Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321 (1977)

This US Supreme Court case is about bona fide occupational qualification defense (BFOQ) and gender discrimination . Dianne Rawlinson was a 22 year old college graduate with major in correctional psychology. When she applied for a job in one of Alabama maximum security correctional institutions her application was rejected, because she failed to meet the minimum 120 pound weight and 5 feet 2 inches height requirements established by a state statute.

She filed a class action lawsuit challenging the Alabama statute as discriminatory under the Civil Rights Act. While the lawsuit was pending the Alabama authorities adopted an administrative regulation, establishing gender criteria for ‘contact’ positions in maximum security prisons. Rawlinson amended her class action complaint by adding a challenge to this regulation too.

The Supreme Court held that the case of discrimination was established, because as a result of the application of the Alabama statute:

  • 29% of women in the US between 18 and 79 years old would be excluded from employment in Alabama correctional system by virtue of the height requirement,
  • 29% of the women would be excluded by virtue of the minimum weight requirement,
  • only 1.28% of men would be excluded by the height requirements,
  • only 2.35% of men would be excluded by the weight requirements.

Thus a disparate impact was established, e.g. when facially neutral employment policy lead to discrimination in the workplace. The Court also ruled that the height and weight requirements were not substantially job related.

At the same time the Court noticed that the job environment in the Alabama prison system was very hostile due to widespread violence and understaffed correctional institutions. About 20% of male prisoners were sex offenders randomly mixed with other prisoners there. Therefor the Court held that the use of women guards in ‘contact’ positions in the maximum security male prisons would create a serious security problem. In view of these arguments the Court rule that in that case the regulation in question was within the narrow limits of bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) exception and the employer was qualified to use BFOQ defense.