Many Americans think certain groups not protected by employment discrimination laws should be

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
January 24, 2023, 8:13 PM GMT+0

In the United States, federal laws prohibit workplace discrimination against certain groups of people — but are Americans aware of which ones, and do they support current laws?

A recent YouGov poll asked 1,000 U.S. adult citizens whether it is currently illegal for employers to discriminate against workers based on 18 characteristics, 11 of which are currently protected statuses under federal law — race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, pregnancy, age, disability, and genetic information — and 7 of which are not — marital status, political affiliation, body size/weight, socioeconomic status, caregiver status, appearance, and criminal record.

The results show that while most Americans are aware of the status of the currently protected groups asked about, many assume that other groups are also protected — despite the fact that they are not. However, when asked, most people say they think currently unprotected groups should be protected — with one exception being a person's criminal record.

Can Americans identify which groups are protected by federal employment laws?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The vast majority of Americans (73-85%) correctly identified these as protected groups. While gender identity and sexual orientation are not explicitly mentioned in Title VII, a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia — established that they are considered forms of sex discrimination, and as a result protected under Title VII. Most Americans are aware that sexual orientation is a protected trait (75%), but fewer are aware that gender identity is (68%).

Employees 40 years of age or older were established as a protected class in 1967 through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; three-quarters of Americans (74%) correctly stated this to be the case. Discrimination based on pregnancy was outlawed roughly a decade later, in 1978, via the Pregnancy Discrimination Act; most Americans (72%) identified pregnancy as a protected trait.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which protected Americans with disabilities from employment discrimination; a majority of people — 76% — correctly responded that disability status is protected. More recently, in 2008, discrimination based on genetic information was prohibited federally through the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act; a little over half of Americans — 57% — said they thought genetic information was protected, fewer than any other currently protected status asked about.

The poll also asked about characteristics that are not currently protected under federal employment law (their statuses vary across state laws). At least half of people stated — incorrectly — that it is illegal under federal law for employers to discriminate based on marital status (72%), political affiliation (69%), body size or weight (65%), socioeconomic status (59%), caregiver status (56%), and appearance (54%). Far fewer — 29% — incorrectly stated that it was illegal to discriminate based on a person's criminal record.

Which groups do Americans think should be protected by federal employment laws?

The poll also asked Americans their opinions on whether it should be illegal to discriminate based on each of the 18 characteristics, regardless of their current status.

On many characteristics, responses to the two questions posed — the share who say a trait is currently protected and the share who say it should be — are closely aligned. However, for certain characteristics that are currently unprotected, more believe they should be protected than think they currently are. The largest gaps are on socioeconomic status (13-percentage-point gap), caregiver status (13-point gap), criminal record (10-point gap), and appearance (10-point gap).

Even as Republican and Democratic lawmakers frequently disagree over which groups deserve legal protection, we find that majorities of Americans in both parties agree that discrimination should be prohibited against 17 of the 18 groups asked about. The one exception is criminal record: 50% of Democrats think it should be a protected status compared to 31% of Republicans. There is also a large divide in opinions on gender identity: 82% of Democrats think it should be protected compared to just 55% of Republicans.

— Linley Sanders and Matthew Smith contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on January 13 - 18, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (zimmytws)