What Is Gender Harassment?

Gender harassment is the non-sexual act of harassing or repeatedly troubling or otherwise persecuting an individual because of his or her gender. People often think of harassment as taking place primarily in a sexual context. However, harassment based solely on gender can include:

  • Offensive remarks
  • Interference or physical assault
  • Generalized sexist slurs
  • Obscene humor or jokes about sex or any gender in general
  • Degrading anecdotes
  • Gender-derogatory nicknames
  • Demeaning or insulting conduct that conveys negative attitudes about a particular gender or transgendered person
  • Gender-based belittling or patronizing comments
  • Transmission or display of gender-degrading graffiti or material

Sexism Can Be More Than Prejudice

Inequity, exclusion, and discrimination can be a result of sexism. A sexist individual negatively values other persons and even groups because of their sex. Sexism can manifest beyond a personal prejudice in the form of insults and personal attacks. Individual members of a community may express sexist behavior in social, institutional structures. The practices, policies, and procedures of a group may express the same conduct.

Personal sexism expressed as discrimination, insults, and harassment aimed at individuals is distinctively different from the systemic or institutional sexism that has the effect of discriminating against or excluding individuals or groups through structures of institutions or conventional practices.

Apparently neutral arrangements and hostile acts can equally have traces of sexism. In other instances, inadvertence or ignorance can contribute to sexist behavior and conduct.

What Is Meant by a "Poisoned Environment"?

Discrimination and harassment can cause a place of study or work to become hostile or negative. The effect is bad, but it is not only the targeted individual that feels the negativity. People who get exposed to the conduct may also perceive it. The workplace or study area has become a poisoned environment.

It should not be too hard to conceive of the uncomfortableness felt by outsiders in the presence of a colleague or co-worker, supervisor, or instructor making adverse comments about individuals at work based on their gender identity or sex.

Even if remarks are generalized and not directed toward anyone in particular, but for example, ridiculed the transgendered community or women, it would not be only offensive to the women and transgendered individuals hearing them. Just recognizing that the demeaning behavior is intended to debase and disgrace a group of people is enough for anyone that witnessed the conduct to be offended.

An environment could also become poisoned by a person posting a sign that is offensive, drawing graffiti, or putting up pictures that disparage women or transgendered individuals in a study or work area.

Sexual and Gender Harassment Equals Hostile Environment

Sexual harassment and gender harassment are two distinct offenses; however, the lines can get blurred in some situations.

  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment - When a person must decide between catering to undesired sexual demands and be punished in a way related to the job or by losing an employee benefit, the harassment creates a this-for-that situation.
  • Hostile work environment gender harassment - Since in some circumstances the same conduct could be considered sexual harassment and gender harassment at other times, this type of harassment may be difficult to recognize. If an employee experiences an aggressive and intimidating work setting due to conduct that is substantial and based on gender or sex, the work environment may be a hostile one.

A few inconsequentially crass comments would not be considered sexual harassment. However, if a female co-worker is always picked on by an employee but none of the male workers, the instigating employee could be engaging in an illegal display of sexually harassing behavior.

Nearly all states in the U.S. have a variation of civil rights laws. They are inclusive of regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Some states have laws that also forbid the same conduct when it gets directed toward individuals based on their sexual orientation.

Gender harassment can have a toll on not just the victim, but the company could be affected as well. There are legal remedies for unlawful harassment. Below are a few of the actions that could come as a result of such conduct:

  • Lost business opportunities or wages for the offender
  • Termination or removal of the person committing the offense
  • Reinstatement of a victim to a former job if terminated due to discrimination or harassment
  • Changes in policies of the workplace
  • Investigation by the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) into the company
  • Class-action lawsuit in the event more than one employee experiences the same issue

How Does the EEOC Define Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a request for sexual favors, unwanted sexual advances, or other sexually-related conduct that affects a person's performance, are used to make employment decisions such as hiring, creates an offensive or hostile work environment, or are implicitly or explicitly a condition of employment. It can be physical conduct, verbal behavior, or a combination of the two and in most instances, must be pervasive and severe.

Can an Employer Be Held Responsible for Someone's Personal Prejudice?

Equal employment opportunity laws cover:

  • Private companies (must have at least 20 employees who worked for a minimum of 20 weeks during the current calendar year or the past year)
  • The federal government
  • Public employers
  • State and local governments
  • Labor unions

The regulations for covered employers state that companies cannot:

  • harass an employee based on his or her gender
  • implement a workplace policy that results in a harmful impact on only employees of a particular gender
  • institute a gender-based pay structure or practices

Since an employer is liable for the conduct of its employees, a company that fails to enforce the federal laws for anti-discrimination is in direct violation of the federal equal employment opportunity laws.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII is the primary federal law that decrees the unlawfulness of sexual harassment. It was extended to include harassment that is gender-based in 1980 by the EEOC. An employee's sexual harassment complaint may get enforced by the EEOC and the Department of Justice with legal authority. The two entities may take action against the employer by ordering criminal and civil penalties.

There is a federal EEOC grievance procedure that an employee must follow within the statutory limitations period if he or she wants to pursue a claim charging an employer with sexual harassment or discrimination.

The EEOC does not consider it unlawful for there to be isolated or occasional instances of inappropriate gender-based comments. However, the EEOC recognizes offensive and continuous comments as illegal conduct. If unwanted remarks by an employer or one of its employees negatively affect an employee, inhibiting him or her from the ability to work, the company is guilty of sexual harassment. It is the affirmative legal obligation of the employer to eliminate every form of gender harassment and discrimination in its company.

The Types of Sexual Harassment

Victims of sexual harassment are most times women, but there are times when women harass men, situations when members of the same sex get bullied, and other possibilities include harassment done by gender stereotyping. As mentioned above, gender harassment is not sexual, but there are times when it blends into a sexual context. It is said that gender harassment is the most common type of sexual harassment. However, other forms of sexual harassment occur in the workplace.

  • Sexual imposition is an uncivilized sexual nuisance like forceful grabbing, touching, or feeling. It could also come in the form of sexual assault.
  • Sexual bribery is a solicitation of sex-linked behavior with a promise of some reward or sexual activity itself. It could come in the way of either a subtle or overt proposition.
  • Seductive behavior is inappropriate, unwanted, and offensive sexual advances toward a person. Examples of this include:
    • Phone calls
    • Repeated unwanted sexual invitations
    • Persistent letters
    • Insistent requests for dates, dinner, or drinks
  • Sexual coercion is the pressure for sexual activity or kind of behavior linked to sex by giving the threat of punishment. Examples may include:
    • Threat of termination
    • Bad evaluations of an employee's performance
    • Withholding of a promotion

Second to gender harassment, the next most common type of sexual harassment is seductive behavior. Coercion and bribery are classic forms of sexual harassment, but they are relatively uncommon. The occurrence of sexual imposition is more frequent than most people think. Recently, court rulings have found various types of workplace visual displays of offensive material, like pornography, to be a kind of sexual harassment.

The definitive criteria of sexual harassment are that the attention, approach, and actions are unwanted. That is why it is necessary for the employee being sexually harassed to make it known and apparent to the offender that the advances, comments, and otherwise sexually-contexed criminal conduct are not welcome.

Sexual Harassment Can Cause Various Effects and Elicit Different Reactions

Vocational development, psychological health, and physical well-being can all be devastatingly affected by sexually harassing acts toward a person. Some women who have been victims of sexual harassment report that physical and psychological reactions to the behavior felt similar to responses they experienced in other forms of stress. Sexual harassment could cause any of the following:

Career-Related Effects

  • Decline in work or academic performance
  • Withdrawal from school or work
  • Decreased satisfaction with job
  • Change in career goals, academic majors, job assignments, or educational programs
  • Absenteeism
  • Performance evaluation that is unfavorable
  • Loss promotions or job

Physiological Reactions

  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Headaches
  • Dermatological reactions
  • Lethargy

Psychological reactions

  • Panic reactions
  • Sexual problems
  • Depression
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of betrayal
  • Fear
  • Irritability
  • Shock
  • Frustration
  • Embarrassment
  • Self-consciousness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Denial
  • Confusion
  • Low self-esteem
  • Isolation
  • Nightmares
  • Anger
  • Self-blame
  • Insecurity
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Phobias
  • Guilt

Is There a Wrong Way to Respond to Sexual Harassment?

Each situation involving harassment is different. There is no one way to react to it. Only you can choose the way to handle the situation that you feel is best. Women's groups, friends, human resource professionals, and affirmative action officers can all provide support and offer advice, but ultimately you are the one to say what is right for you.

The one thing for sure is that the problem will not go away on its own. You should not ignore it and choose to do nothing about the situation. Below are a few suggestions you may choose to consider:

  • Accept that the blame belongs to the one who is harassing you and no one else.
  • Deny all compulsions to direct blame for the harassment toward yourself.
  • Record all instances of harassment. Document each incident with names, witnesses, who said what and to whom, times, dates, and places.
  • Be direct and say "no" to the harasser. Refuse sexism, seduction, bribery, coercion, and imposition.
  • If you belong to a union, talk to your union representative. Unions take sexual harassment seriously and once involved, they remain committed to eliminating it in the workplace.
  • Write a letter addressed to the person harassing you. Let the individual know that you want the harassment to end and how it makes you feel. Use certified mail to send it and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Consult a psychologist or other mental health provider if you are experiencing severe mental distress or emotional issues as a result of the harassment.
  • Do not keep what is happening to you a secret. Let someone know. Keeping quiet will not bring the harassment any closer to stopping. The person harassing you may also be doing the same thing to someone else. By you bringing the incidents to light, you could encourage others to come forth. It could also get you the support you need.
  • Learn what sexual harassment policies and procedures are in place at your job. Find out who handles these kinds of issues and ask if you can speak to the person privately. In addition to receiving help, advice, and support, you will be able to get an official record from your employer that could be valuable should legal action be advisable.

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