Sexual Harassment in 2020

The “Me Too” movement changed the way the public viewed sexual harassment and made space for conversations at home and at work about what constitutes harassment. It seems obvious that a powerful person at work should not take advantage of their position, should not make sexual advances toward employees, clients, or contractors, and should not use sexual favors as leverage for employment, compensation, promotion, or benefits. However, in many workplaces, that is exactly what happens. And it is illegal.

Sexual harassment at a workplace comes in many forms, from subtle to overt. You might be unsure whether you have experienced or seen harassment, or you may work in the military and assume that federal and state protections are limited to civilian cases. Recently, a military case of sexual assault was tried in federal courts for the first time. In the military, any assault can be viewed as workplace harassment, but cases have historically been handled within the military.

It is important to know your rights and protections against workplace harassment in California. From the deserts of Death Valley to the hills of San Francisco—from the film industry, to the military, to software development—those rights and protections are intended to apply equally. 

California Fair Employment and Housing Act

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act states that sexual harassment in a workplace is a form of sex discrimination. Discrimination is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, intimidation, or offensive conduct of a sexual nature (visual, physical, or verbal). The offensive behavior may or may not be sexually motivated. If the conduct is based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, it is harassment. If it is based on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation, it is harassment. If the conduct makes for a hostile environment for colleagues, it is harassment. The harasser may or may not be the same gender as the victim. 

Federal Protections

Title VII of the Federal Human Rights Act of 1964 “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” This means employers cannot make decisions involving hiring, promotions, firing, or compensation based on gender. Courts have established that sexual discrimination falls under the broad category of discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides an additional avenue of protection from sexual harassment at work. The commission defines harassment similarly to both California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Federal Human Rights Act. It  stipulates that gender-specific and gender-offensive remarks can be considered harassment, that any gender can be a victim or a harasser, and that harassment is not limited to different-gender offenses.

Where to Turn If You Have Been Harassed at Work

When you experience harassment at work, it’s frightening and threatens your ability to perform as usual and to feel safe while you’re doing it. You can reach out for support and legal help.

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