Sexual harassment in specific industries can become the subject of particular public attention when employees speak out about their experiences. This has certainly been true of the financial sector, with many accounts of firm cultures that condone or even encourage harassment of employees in New York City. Sexual harassment, however, is hardly limited to any one industry or region. The technology industry in California has been the most recent recipient of public scrutiny, after allegations of rampant sexual harassment in one major tech company gained wide attention. A lawsuit filed against another prominent Silicon Valley company has kept focus on the region. The lawsuit alleges “pervasive harassment” of female employees, as well as wage disparities and lack of opportunities for promotions. The defendant eventually fired the plaintiff, stating that an internal investigation found her claims to be baseless. Despite this, the lawsuit continues, and it has reportedly inspired others to speak up.
Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and other factors. The protections against sex discrimination go beyond prohibitions against blatantly discriminatory practices like refusing to hire someone because of their gender. Courts have found that sexual harassment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination when it involves a demand for some sort of sexual activity or favor in exchange for some employment benefit, or when the harassment is pervasive or severe enough to create a hostile work environment. An employer may be liable for harassment perpetrated by a supervisor or manager. If the alleged harasser is not in a supervisory or managerial position over the recipient, the employer may still be liable if it learns of the harassment and fails to take remedial action.
In 2013, the plaintiff in the lawsuit mentioned above began working for the defendant, which designs, manufactures, and sells electric cars. She eventually received a promotion to a position in the general assembly department as an engineer at the company’s factory in Fremont, California. She was reportedly one of the only women in the department, and she alleges that she received less pay than the male engineers she replaced. She further alleges that less qualified male engineers were promoted over her, that management ignored her reports about problems with quality testing of new vehicles, and that she faced retaliation for those reports.