Sexual Harassment

What is Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment includes severe or pervasive conduct in the workplace related to a person’s sex that negatively affects a reasonable person’s employment. It includes: verbal or written comments about someone’s appearance or behavior, sexual jokes and innuendoes, requesting sexual favors or repeatedly asking a person out, sexual leering, following, inappropriate touching, and drawings, posters, e-mail images, or screen savers that are sexual in nature. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is common in workplaces throughout the United States.

What law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments. Title VII also applies to private and public colleges and universities, employment agencies, and labor organizations.

Title VII reads:

“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or (2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. (b) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

There are two established, legally prohibited types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo: Compliance or noncompliance with a sexual demand is used as the basis of an employment decision.
  2. Hostile work environment: An employee is subject to unwelcome verbal or physical sexual behavior, including requests for sexual favors and other conduct of a sexual nature that is either so severe or pervasive that it adversely affects her or his ability to do work.

Retaliation against someone who complains of sexual harassment or participates in an investigation involving sexual harassment is also illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

What is required of employers?

Title VII makes employers liable to prevent and stop sexual harassment of employees. Under Title VII, covered employers must: (1) take reasonable care to prevent sexual harassment; (2) take reasonable care to promptly correct sexual harassment that has occurred.

Before an employer can be legally responsible for taking reasonable care to correct sexual harassment, the employer must be aware that the harassment has occurred. Employees should follow their company’s internal grievance procedures, if they exist, or to otherwise notify their supervisor about the harassment.

What can I do if I believe I have been sexually harassed at work?

You should notify your employer or supervisor immediately. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy in place, follow it, and expect your employer to follow it as well. Put complaints in writing. Take notes on the harassment and be specific in your details — note the time and place of each incident, what was said and done, and who witnessed the actions. If your employer fails to take action, consult an attorney. Should you wish to gain more information or file a complaint, contact the EEOC. Act quickly; if you fail to act within a specific period of time, you may lose your ability to take legal action.

What remedies are available under Title VII?

Important time limits apply to sex discrimination claims under Title VII. Individuals have 180 days from the date of the last incident of discrimination to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This 180-day filing deadline is extended to 300 days if the charge also is covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law. Using internal procedures at one’s workplace does not extend the time limit under federal law, although it may under some state laws. To preserve a sex discrimination claim under Title VII, contact the EEOC to find out what time limit applies. To preserve your sex discrimination claim under state law, contact the state fair employment practices agency in your state. An attorney is not necessary to file a complaint with the EEOC.

Approximately 15,000 sexual harassment cases are brought to the EEOC each year.

What will the EEOC do?

Once a charge of discrimination is filed with the EEOC, the employer will be notified that a charge of discrimination has been filed, and the EEOC will begin an investigation. The EEOC may attempt to settle the charge of discrimination or may refer the charge to its mediation program, which is a voluntary, confidential process requiring the consent of both parties. If the EEOC is unable to reach a settlement agreement, and it is a private employer, the EEOC may file a lawsuit in federal court. If the employer is a public employer, the EEOC will refer the matter for litigation to the Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The EEOC may also choose to dismiss the charge. When a charge is dismissed, or if the EEOC is unable to reach an agreement to settle the complaint after finding discrimination, the EEOC issues a notice of the individual’s right to file a lawsuit on her or his own behalf within 90 days. Individuals who have filed a charge with the EEOC have the right to request this notice if they wish to proceed to court and the EEOC has not completed its process.

What relief is available if there is a finding of sex discrimination by the court?

If there is a finding of sex discrimination, relief is intended to make the individual “whole;” in other words, to put the individual in the place she or he would have been had the discrimination not occurred. Such relief can include back pay, front pay, hiring, promotion or tenure, and reinstatement. Damages may be available to compensate for monetary losses, future monetary losses, and mental anguish and inconvenience. Punitive damages also may be available if an employer acted with malice or reckless indifference. Additional remedies may include attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and court costs.


Sexual harassment is a common occurrence in schools and on the streets. It negatively affects students’ ability to learn in schools and individual’s mobility and access to public resources.


National Statistics

The American Association of University Women has conducted several national surveys about sexual harassment in schools and on campus that show it to be a widespread problem:

More than 80 percent of students experienced sexual harassment across their school career, according to surveys conducted for both AAUW’s 1993 and 2001 reports Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School.

A November 2011 report by AAUW on sexual harassment in grades 7-12 similarly will show that sexual harassment continues to be a major issue in our nation’s schools.

More than 60 percent of college students experience sexual harassment, according to a survey for AAUW’s 2006 report Drawing the Line.

More information:

The information above has been provided to SoundGirls by Amy Richards and AAUW.

Amy Richards is a writer, producer and organizer. Most recently Amy produced the Emmy nominated series WOMAN for Viceland and curated a series of talks to accompany Annie Leibovitz’s traveling exhibit WOMEN. Amy is also the president of Soapbox, Inc., the foremost feminist lecture agency, and the affiliated Soapbox Foundation, creators of Feminist Camp. Amy lectures at dozens of venues each year and contributes, though her writings and media appearances, to the current public conversations on feminism.

AAUW has been empowering women as individuals and as a community since 1881. For more than 130 years, we have worked together as a national grassroots organization to improve the lives of millions of women and their families.

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