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The evolution of sexual harassment awareness

Sexual harassment ranges from annoying to illegal. There was a time when it was "accepted" as a form of hazing, the price of being a woman in the workplace. Teasing, groping, and worse were often tolerated, as was employee termination if a woman didn’t provide sexual favors to her harasser. That began to change as women sought redress through the courts in the 1970s and '80s. A growing body of legal precedents and the passage of laws strengthening the Civil Rights Act have made the threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit a serious financial risk for companies today. Here's a look at some of the legal moves and high-profile cases that have raised awareness of this issue.

- Maud Dillingham

The prohibition against discrimination based on sex was added to Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the last minute before Congress passed the bill. The US Capitol building in Washington is pictured. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

1. The rise of sexual harassment lawsuits

Sexual harassment lawsuits started out by taking on quid pro quo situations in which a woman lost her job if she would not sleep with her boss (Barnes v. Train in 1974). The 1978 book “Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job” by Lin Farley raised the public profile of the issue and is often credited with bringing the  term "sexual harassment" into popular use.

In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stated that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, issuing regulations that defined the offense. The “hostile environment” legal precedent was set in 1986 in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. Now, sexually charged remarks were grounds for a lawsuit. As a result, employers’ liability grew, and plaintiffs’ burden of proof diminished.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 expanded the rights of women to sue and collect damages for sexual discrimination or harassment. The “reasonable woman” standard entered into law in 1991 with Ellison v. Brady. Cases would now be considered from the point of view of the complainant instead of the defendant.


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