Sexual harassment in the workplace in the United States

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been considered a form of discrimination on the basis of sex in the United States since the mid-1970s.

United States law recognizes two forms of sexual harassment:

Quid pro quo sexual harassment: an employee is required to tolerate sexual harassment in exchange for employment, a raise or job benefit, or promotion.
Hostile work environment: sexual harassment in the workplace results in an offensive work environment or unreasonably interferes an employee’s work performance.

History
In the US, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin or religion. Initially only intended to combat sexual harassment of women, (42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-2) the prohibition of sex discrimination covers both females and males. This discrimination occurs when the sex of the worker is made as a condition of employment (i.e. all female waitpersons or male carpenters) or where this is a job requirement that does not mention sex but ends up preventing many more persons of one sex than the other from the job (such as height and weight limits). This act only applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

Barnes v. Train (1974) is commonly viewed as the first sexual harassment case in America, even though the term “sexual harassment” was not used. The term “sexual harassment” was coined and popularized by Lin Farley in 1975, based on a pattern she recognized during a 1974 Cornell University class she taught on women and work.

In 1976, Williams v. Saxbe established sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination when sexual advances by a male supervisor towards a female employee, if proven, would be deemed an artificial barrier to employment placed before one gender and not another. In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating it was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 1986 case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court first recognized “sexual harassment” as a violation of Title VII, established the standards for analyzing whether the conduct was welcome and levels of employer liability, and that speech or conduct in itself can create a “hostile environment”.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 added provisions to Title VII protections including expanding the rights of women to sue and collect compensatory and punitive damages for sexual discrimination or harassment, and the case of Ellison v. Brady resulted in rejecting the reasonable person standard in favor of the “reasonable woman standard” which allowed for cases to be analyzed from the perspective of the complainant and not the defendant.[6] Also in 1991, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. became the first sexual harassment case to be given class action status paving the way for others.

Seven years later, in 1998, through that same case, new precedents were established that increased the limits on the “discovery” process in sexual harassment cases, that then allowed psychological injuries from the litigation process to be included in assessing damages awards. In the same year, the courts concluded in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, Florida, and Burlington v. Ellerth, that employers are liable for harassment by their employees. Moreover, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services set the precedent for same-sex harassment, and sexual harassment without motivation of “sexual desire”, stating that any discrimination based on sex is actionable so long as it places the victim in an objectively disadvantageous working condition, regardless of the gender of either the victim, or the harasser.

In the 2006 case of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, the standard for retaliation against a sexual harassment complainant was revised to include any adverse employment decision or treatment that would be likely to dissuade a “reasonable worker” from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

During 2007 alone, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and related state agencies received 12,510 new charges of sexual harassment on the job.

The 2010 case, Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. ruled that a hostile work environment can be created in a workplace where sexually explicit language and pornography are present. A hostile workplace may exist based upon the treatment of employees as a group, even if it is not targeted at any particular employee.

From 2010 through 2016, men made approximately 17% of sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC.

In a 2017 MSN poll it was found that 31% of people in the U.S have been sexually harassed in the workplace; 45% of women said they were sexually harassed and 15% percent of men said they were.

Sexual harassment in government
The California legislature in Sacramento is known to have paid at least $850,000 in sexual harassment settlements in the period 1996-2017, though the New York Times notes often settlements are unknown to the public because of the terms of the settlements themselves. The U.S. Congress paid $17 million between the 1990s and 2017 in settlements for sexual harassment and for discrimination.

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