Knowing the theory of gender that a court is using to understand and assess the issues in a case is vital to ensuring that women are afforded their full rights under the law. Unfortunately, courts often do not explicitly state what understanding of gender is informing their decisions. An exception is found in employment law: specifically, the bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) exception to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which allows employers to engage in sex-based discrimination in those instances in which the sex of the employee is a reasonably necessary qualification for the job. In these cases, because the court must analyze how “manness” or “womanness” impacts one's qualification to hold certain kinds of employment, the court must articulate its understanding of gender.
This paper examines two BFOQ cases in the cross-gender prison guard context, those cases in which an individual of one sex seeks to guard inmates of the opposite sex. In these cases the courts created a theory of gender that posits men and women as different in kind. The theory developed in this line of cases is an attack on Title VII protections and a potential barrier to women's equality under the law.