I think that a lot of women in our society . . .feel self-conscious or question their own merit . . . Our culture places so much emphasis on the sexualization of women’s bodies.
College Professor, 40+, Education
Keplinger et al., 2019
Approximately eighty percent of women in the United States report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, with one study showing that 50% of women had been harassed within the last year alone. The negative effects of sexual harassment are well known and include negative mood, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, job withdrawal, greater stress, greater self-doubt, lower self-esteem, and lower overall mental health. Moreover, the effects of harassment can be seen for nearly a decade following a harassing event. Sexual harassment has largely been conceptualized as a women’s issue; that is not to say that men are not harassed, but they are harassed at a lower frequency and experience fewer negative psychological outcomes of sexual harassment compared to women (Keplinger et al., 2019).
Sexual harassment on the job has had a long history in the United States—mostly against women. In the early days of the United States, many slaves were subjected to sexual harassment, coercion (persuading someone to do something by threat or force), and rape because they were considered property and laws did not protect them. Commonly, it was said that slave women were “promiscuous,” that they did not fight hard enough against their attackers, and that they were responsible for the assaults against them (NOW, 2013).
After the Civil War, Esther Vaughn, a dairymaid and housekeeper, was fired from her job when she became pregnant by her employer. She gave birth alone and was found living in poverty with her dead infant. Vaughn was charged with infanticide and sentenced to death. Susan B. Anthony, an American writer, lecturer, abolitionist, and advocate of a woman’s right to vote, and her colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fought for the freedom of Esther Vaughn, who was later pardoned by the Governor of Pennsylvania (NOW, 2013).
In 1887 a report called Women Wage-Workers revealed what women faced as household servants: “Household service has become synonymous with the worst degradation that comes to woman.” The report also described the sexual abuse of women who worked in factories, some in the garment industry. Upton Sinclair, in his 1905 expose The Jungle, compared the state of women working in the meatpacking plants to “wage slavery” and “chattel slavery” (Siegal, 2003).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
I’ve had bosses come on to me, and you don’t want to get fired. When bosses hit on me, or flirt with me, I just ignore it.
Lawyer, 60+, Defense Law
Keplinger et al., 2019
The Civil Rights Act, this nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation, was signed into law on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and certain provisions forbid discrimination on the basis of sex and race in hiring, promoting, and firing. The Civil Rights Act was eventually expanded by Congress to strengthen enforcement of these fundamental civil rights (DOL, 2012).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment practices that discriminate because of race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), and religion. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII. In addition, Title VII allows for lawsuits alleging harassment based on a protected characteristic, where the evidence demonstrates unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive or hostile work environment (DOJ, 2018). In 1991 laws were passed that permitted compensatory damages to be awarded in cases of sexual harassment that violate Title VII (Siegel, 2003).
It was not until 1974 that the term sexual harassment was coined by Cornell University activists. Awareness of the problem has grown through high-profile cases as well as continued lobbying by activists seeking to convince the courts that sexual harassment is “discrimination on the basis of sex.” In 1991 Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during the years they worked together. She testified at Thomas’ Senate hearings and, although he was later confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, much attention was brought to bear on the issue (Keplinger et al., 2019).
Over the last several years, revelations about the sexual mistreatment of women have stunned the world. According to analysis by The New York Times, the defeat of Hillary Clinton and election of Donald Trump spurred a women’s movement in the United States beginning in November 2016 and resulting in protests across the country, including the largest single-day protest in history on January 21, 2017 (Keplinger et al., 2019).
The same year, multiple allegations of sexual harassment and coercion were levelled against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The #Me Too movement was born from these cases with the message that “men in positions of power should not—and will not—be allowed to get away with using their position to harass and assault.” The movement led to many high-profile and powerful people losing their jobs. Women have become united against sexual assault and harassment, making these issues the hallmark of the current women’s movement. The #MeToo movement has become the largest social movement related to sexual harassment in history, with 12 million Facebook posts and 15 million “impressions” (the number of times the content was displayed) within 48 hours of its inception (Keplinger et al., 2019).
The #MeToo Movement is finally making it so that people are comfortable enough to say it out loud, because they are understanding that it was wrong and that it wasn’t their fault.
Sales Manager, 30+, Marketing
Keplinger et al., 2019
EEOC Policy Guidance
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance on “current issues of sexual harassment” in March 1990. Its purpose was to define sexual harassment and establish employer liability in light of “recent cases.” Specifically, it addressed the following:
- Determining whether sexual conduct is “unwelcome”
- Evaluating evidence of harassment
- Determining whether a work environment is sexually “hostile”
- Holding employers liable for sexual harassment by supervisors
- Evaluating preventive and remedial action taken in response to claims of sexual harassment
The EEOC went on to review court decisions and spell out the rationale for each of the above items. It continues to set the standards to be followed in instances of sexual harassment to the present day (EEOC, 1990).
Federal Law in the Twenty-first Century
When a high-profile journalist approached Emily on Twitter with an offer of work, she recalls being “a bit star-struck.” Their direct messages and email conversations could be “very flirtatious,” but Emily continued talking to him as “I thought it might lead to something more, workwise.”
It wasn’t long before “flirtatious” became something else, however. “There was a demanding level of banter to keep up with, and I found it really stressful,” Emily said. “Then one evening he suggested sending me a picture of himself naked from his workplace.” Emily told him no, but her refusal appeared to sour the relationship.
“It all became very awkward,” she explained. “He got very defensive. He ended up being quite hostile, though I apologized over and over as though it had been my fault. The more I tried to take responsibility, the worse it became. Then the work stopped coming. I felt like I’d failed some kind of test.”
Norris & Torrisi, 2020
Sexual harassment involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when a person must submit as a condition of a job, pay, or career, or when submission to or rejection of the conduct affects employment decisions regarding that person. It is sexual harassment when the conduct unreasonably interferes with the person’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment (SAPRO, 2017).
According to the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
- The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man, and the harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
- The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
- It is helpful for the victim to directly inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available. (EEOC, 2002)
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) employees from discrimination based on sex. In a 6–3 vote, the Justices ruled that LGBTQ people are protected by Title VII. Justice Gorsuch based his opinion on the 1964 statute’s ban on discrimination because of sex:
It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating based on sex. (JDSupra, 2020)
An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision—exactly what Title VII forbids.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains (EEOC, 2002).