No, complimenting a woman won’t be considered sexual harassment
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There’s news a former Obama administration official is leading a team that has offered to buy the disgraced Weinstein movie studio.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, who used to run the Small Business Administration, is reportedly offering $275 million for the company. If the deal goes through, the plan is to set up a majority female board and establish a $30 million fund to support those allegedly abused by Harvey Weinstein.
As we continue our coverage of harassment and assault in the workplace, we check in from time to time with Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She joined us to discuss the laws that exist against sexual harassment and what employers need to do to help combat the issue. Below is an edited transcript.
David Brancaccio: What’s broken beyond the predators themselves? I mean, is the law somehow insufficient?
Gillian Thomas: I think that the law has really gone as far as it can in this area. I don’t think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what’s illegal. I think we have a cultural problem here and a problem of employers not dealing with that culture.
Brancaccio: Not dealing, not enforcing, not informing employees about what’s right and what’s wrong?
Thomas: All of the above. And I think a number one thing that employers should be doing that they haven’t done is — aside from putting out policies and having the trainings and doing the things on paper they should do — real accountability. People getting fired. If this stuff is happening, people getting fired. Consequences are what change behavior.
Brancaccio: You say the law has gone about as far as it can and now it’s the the culture that has to change. But how severe or pervasive does it have to be for it to count as sexual harassment?
Thomas: In 1986, the Supreme Court announced the standard for hostile work-environment harassment and that is harassment that is severe or pervasive — not both. That’s a common misunderstanding. So the severe part is actually easier to understand. A single act could create an unlawful environment if it were severe enough, i.e. an attempted assault or an assault. One is enough. You’ve got liability there. Pervasive is harder and it can mean a lot of things. And the legal standard, again not a model of precision, is the totality of the circumstances. Is it pervasive within the totality of the circumstances? So for instance, it could be one construction work site where women are surrounded 24/7 by porn and lewd talk and men exposing themselves, and that could be one example of pervasiveness within an environment. Or it could be one woman and one harasser, and the harassment takes place frequently and over a period of years. It has to be severe or pervasive to the extent that a reasonable person would find it abusive. So these men who say, “Oh, I can’t compliment her just once, I can’t say anything,” no one’s going to say that that’s illegal.
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