Update: In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit panel set precedent by reviving a lawsuit against the University of Mary Washington for failing to address anonymous online harassment of female students. The Court held that the female students stated a claim under Title IX because the school had “substantial control” over both the harassers and the context in which the harassment occurred, and that the First Amendment did not absolve the school of its responsibility to respond to victims.

Too often, women are falsely accused of “sleeping their way to the top,” particularly when they are excelling in their careers. This type of attack is a form of sexual harassment, based on gender stereotypes, as confirmed by a federal appeals court last Friday, February 8.

In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., the Fourth Circuit issued an important victory for female employees. A unanimous three-judge panel reversed the district court’s opinion and held that rumors that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain promotions can result in her employer’s liability under Title VII for sex discrimination.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) led an amicus brief in this case, along with law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner LLP (BSF), highlighting the harmful sex stereotypes at play and why these kinds of harmful rumors constitute sex-based harassment under federal law.

NWLC secured the support of an additional 43 organizational sign-ons, and collectively, we urged the Fourth Circuit to reverse the federal district court’s opinion that inappropriately dismissed the case. The lower court had incorrectly concluded that the harassment was based on alleged “conduct,” and so, not on “gender.” The lower court had also reasoned that the same kind of rumor could have just as well been used against a male employee and thus, these types of comments were not sex-based harassment.

In NWLC’s amicus brief, we argued that rumors about women “sleeping their way to the top” are indeed based on and reinforce gender stereotypes.  We highlighted that women’s workplace capabilities and expertise are often undermined through these kinds of malicious rumors. We also noted that when employees of other genders are faced with sexual rumors, this would also constitute sex-based harassment in violation of federal law.

The Fourth Circuit revived the claims of sex discrimination in this case agreeing that “the traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior” are still at play and allowing harassment based on such stereotypes violates federal law.

NWLC congratulates Ms. Parker and her attorneys at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for this important victory for women’s rights and for all workers.

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