When most people think of sexual harassment, they think of lewd comments of a sexual nature either addressed to female employees or said in their presence. But there are cases where women are being harassed, not because of their physical attractiveness, but because they aren't attractive enough. Sounds odd? Well, it has been going on for a long time.
Back in 1989, in the landmark case Price-Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt with this kind of issue. Ann Hopkins, a female accountant, had been told by her male superiors that she was "too much like a man;" that she needed to "walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry." The importance of the Supreme Court's decision in that case was the court's explanation of the concept of "gender play[ing] a motivating part in an employment decision." The court explained that if, at the moment the decision was made, one of the bases for making the decision was the fact that the person was a woman, then that decision was "motivated by gender discrimination." After Price-Waterhouse, this definition includes stereotypes based on sex, such as the ones expressed in that case.
Almost a quarter century later, a female employee in Tober-Purze v. City of Evanston, was told she wasn't pretty enough. To make matters worse, the harassers were attorneys who should certainly have known better. Unfortunately, not all attorneys are as familiar with the federal anti-discrimination laws as employment law attorneys must be.
Where does our protection against sex discrimination come from?
A federal statute known as Title VII prohibits many types of discrimination, including discrimination "because of" an employee's sex (or gender). This means your gender cannot factor into any employment decision, including promotions, disciplinary action, hiring and termination. There is also the Equal Pay Act which calls for equal pay for equal work amongst men and women.
Unfortunately despite these historic and long-standing federal laws, and some of the advances in work place equality that have been achieved, discrimination still exists in many workplaces. The EEOC has reported that nearly 30,356 sex discrimination charges were filed in fiscal year 2012. So, Tober-Purze's story should not be that surprising.
What does the ruling in Tober-Purze v. City of Evanston mean?
Elke Tober-Purze, a female attorney at the City of Evanston in Illinois claims in her lawsuit that she was subjected to derogatory comments throughout her employment. She was told she wasn't all that pretty, and that previous female attorneys they had hired had been "just gorgeous" and wore "tight sweaters" and "short skirts." She filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor and was fired 3 days after her employer became aware of the complaint. The City of Evanston tried to have her lawsuit dismissed right out of the gate, arguing that there was no evidence of "sex bias." Although the court did not decide whether these comments could be considered "sex bias," the court did rule that based on the facts, Tober-Purze could pursue her claim for sex discrimination.
If you believe that you may have been subjected to discrimination based on sex, you should discuss your situation with an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible, in order to protect any claim you may have.