sexual harassment

Sleeping to the Top: Recognizing a Sex-Based Stereotype

Amy Maurer

Amy Maurer is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

In February, the Fourth Circuit ruled on Parker v. Reema Consulting Services., holding that rumors in the workplace that a female manager received a series of promotions because she was sleeping with a male manager constituted sexual harassment under Title VII. The court based this ruling on the finding that there exists a persistent and pernicious stereotype that women advance in workplace not based on their skill and competence, but based on their sexuality. 

Evangeline Parker was hired by Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (RCSI) as a low level warehouse clerk in December 2014. By March 2016, she had been promoted six times, ultimately holding the position of Assistant Operations Manager of the warehouse. Soon after her promotion to Assistant Operation Manager, Parker learned that Donte Jennings, a male coworker who was hired close to the same time as her, was circulating a rumor that she had obtained her promotion by engaging in a sexual relationship with her one of superiors. Larry Moppins, the highest ranking manager at the warehouse also participated in spreading this rumor, and other employees began treating Parker with “open resentment and disrespect,” including employees who she directly supervised.

Parker’s working environment became increasingly hostile, and Moppins blamed her for “bringing the situation into the workplace,” stating he would not allow her any further advancement within the company. Parker filed a sexual harassment complaint with RCSI’s human resources manager. Weeks later, Jennings also submitted a complaint to HR, alleging that that Parker had created a “hostile work environment against him through inappropriate conduct,” and, though she asserted that the claim was false, Parker was directed to have no contact with Jennings. In May 2016, Moppins fired Parker, citing Jennings’ complaint, poor management ability, and insubordination, all of which Parker maintains were unfounded. Parker then filed a complaint alleging a RCSI had created a hostile work environment and that she had been terminated in retaliation for her complaint to HR.

Initially, the District Court granted a motion to dismiss, holding that the circulation of the rumor was not based on Parker’s gender, but instead was “based upon false allegations of conduct by her.” The District Court also stated that the “same type of a rumor could be made in a variety of other context[s] involving people of the same gender or different genders,” therefore the harassment was based on conduct, not gender.

In many sex stereotyping cases, courts have found the sex stereotypes that employers are relying upon are more obvious. For example, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court stated that, while they had expert testimony on sex stereotyping in the workplace, “it takes no special training to discern sex stereotyping in a description of an aggressive female employee as requiring ‘a course at charm school.’” Similarly, in Back v. Hastings on Hudson Union Free Sch. Dist., the Second Circuit stated no special training was required to “discern stereotyping in the view that a woman cannot ‘be a good mother’ and have a job that requires long hours.”

Here, the district court did not find the stereotype that women advance in the workplace by using their sexuality to be so easily discernible, raising the argument that both men and women could fall victim to such a rumor. In response, both Parker’s brief and an amicus brief from the National Women’s Law Center offered evidence demonstrating that there exists a persistent and pernicious stereotype that women “[sleep] their way to the top,” and, when faced with rumors of sexual activity in the workplace, women are perceived far more negatively than men faced with the same rumors. The NWLC brief cites peer-reviewed social science literature, explaining that empirical evidence demonstrates “women are perceived more negatively—including being seen as less competent and intelligent—than men for engaging in the same sexual activity.” The brief explains that this type of rumor invokes stereotypes of correct female behavior and punishes women who “violate the expectation that men (not women) occupy powerful roles.” This behavior is essentially viewed as proscribed for women, but encouraged for men, and women are penalized for “merely exhibiting competence and success in male gender-typed positions.”

In addressing the District Court’s hypothetical of men being hindered by a similar rumor, both briefs expressed that, while anyone could suffer negative consequences from such a rumor, the specific stereotype of women using sexuality to achieve success persists, men are generally not perceived to have advanced at work based on sexual relationships. Additionally, while a man likely could not bring a claim on theory of sex stereotyping, this does not foreclose men from bringing Title VII claims in this situation.

The Fourth Circuit found this evidence convincing, stating that there is a persistent stereotype that “generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success.” In reversing the District Court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that RCSI and the District Court had failed to consider the “sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects.” While RCSI argued that the rumor was not started because of Parker’s gender, but because a coworker was jealous of her success, and a similar rumor could have been levelled against a man, the Circuit Court held that a distinction between harassment “based on gender” and harassment “based on conduct” does not apply here, as “the conduct is also alleged to be gender-based.” The court states that this rumor “invokes a deeply rooted perception… that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success.”  They further emphasized that the double standard in “which women, but not men, are susceptible to being labelled as ‘sluts’ or worse” continues to persist. Based on this persistent negative stereotype about women in the workplace, Parker’s plausibly alleged that the harassment was based on her gender.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision sets an important precedent for protecting women who are victims of similar rumors at work, as well as demonstrating how a previously unrecognized stereotype can be elucidated and recognized by a court in the Title VII context. Parker was able to effectively demonstrate the persistence of the perception that women use sex to achieve success through social science research, ensuring that court’s opinion was rooted in the reality that women face. The court’s willingness to accept this evidence ensures that women’s lived experiences will be reflected in the legal doctrine.

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