Sexual Harassment Extends Beyond Employees and Co-Workers, Affects “Virtual Assistants”

phoneSexual harassment has been a problem in workplaces for a long time, probably as long as the “workplace” has existed. In the popular imagination, the classic sexual harassment scenario involves a male manager or supervisor making unwanted sexual overtures toward a subordinate female employee. Of course, sexual harassment can take many other forms. In a very modern twist on a seemingly timeless problem, “virtual assistants” (VAs) are reportedly experiencing sexual harassment. VAs are artificial intelligence (AI) applications on smartphones and other devices that use voice recognition to answer questions and perform certain tasks. Several software companies are reporting that their VAs receive far more queries of a sexual nature than they were expecting. Some VAs, such as Microsoft’s Cortana, are learning how to push back against such conduct.

In the U.S. legal system, sexual harassment includes offensive conduct ranging from inappropriate sexual comments to overt demands for sexual activity to actions that also constitute criminal sexual assault. These are all considered sex discrimination in violation of federal, state, and city employment statutes. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). Sexual harassment is not limited to scenarios in which men harass women. Women can sexually harass men, and workers can successfully claim sexual harassment by members of the same sex. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998).

The court identified two types of sexual harassment in Vinson. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves demands for sexual activity in some form, either in exchange for some employment benefit or under threat of some penalty. Hostile work environment sexual harassment involves inappropriate sexual remarks, overtures, or other conduct that renders the workplace unbearable.

Virtual assistants, not being real people, obviously cannot bring a claim for sexual harassment, but their receipt of repeated sexual questions and overtures are relevant to understanding the two forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. It seems safe to say that VAs are not subject to quid pro quo sexual harassment, since demands of a sexual nature are likely to be outside the scope of their programming. The types of queries described by Microsoft and other companies, however, are classic examples of conduct that creates a hostile work environment.

Certain common features of VAs might contribute to some people’s perception of a classic sexual harassment scenario. Most VAs present as female, including Cortana, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa. It is not clear how many sexual remarks received by VAs come from men, but it does appear that some consumers perceive VAs in a subordinate relationship, based on gender stereotypes that pre-date sexual harassment laws.

At least one VA is learning to fight back against inappropriate sexual remarks. Microsoft’s AI team has reportedly programmed Cortana as “a true woman of the 21st century,” which is intended to mean that she does not take inappropriate comments lightly. Part of this process involved talking to real people who work in assistant jobs to learn how they handle offensive remarks and then incorporating that knowledge into Cortana’s AI.

The sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent New York City job applicants, employees, and former employees. We help our clients assert their rights against unlawful employment practices like sexual harassment. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our experienced and knowledgeable team, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

Phillips & Associates Prevails Before Second Circuit in Important Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Case, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 6, 2016

National Gymnastics Federation Faces Sexual Abuse Allegations Involving Coaches, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 24, 2016

New York Court Rules that Firing a Woman for Being Too Attractive Is Not Sex Discrimination Under State or City Law, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 10, 2016

Photo credit: Tej3478 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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