With news of a top female Yahoo! executive being sued for alleged sexual harassment and coercion on Friday going viral almost instantly, many are shocked at such a high-profile case involving a woman. The case became even more novel when it was discovered that the subordinate employee who filed the suit against both the executive and Yahoo! was also female. This latest sexual harassment case is garnering extra attention in the media because of the perceived rarity of suits against females, but many do not realize just how common these cases are.
Software Engineer Nan Shi filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her supervisor, Yahoo! executive Maria Zhang on July 11 after what she said was months of threats, coercion, forced labor and eventual wrongful termination. Shi is naming Yahoo! in the suit as well because she said when she went to the HR department at Yahoo!, she was placed on paid leave and then terminated. The suit claimed that in addition to sexual coercion, Zhang forced Shi to move into Yahoo! corporate housing and then insisted on living with her. She also allegedly forced Shi to work long hours on weekends and evenings, threatening the engineer with termination, loss of stock options, and a black mark on her future career if she did not comply. Shi says when she did finally begin protesting and refused to continue the relationship, Zhang treated her unfairly at work, giving her poor reviews and promoting other less senior engineers ahead of her. Yahoo! is vehemently denying any wrongdoing on the part of Maria Zhang or in terminating Nan Shi’s employment.
It’s unclear whether Shi went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after her termination before filing her civil suit. Employees who feel that they have been terminated wrongfully due to a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may file a claim with the EEOC before pursuing damages. The EEOC acts as a mediator makes recommendations to both the employer and the employee about whether the law has been violated. It can also be asked to provide testimony on its findings on a case in civil or criminal court.
The EEOC considers sexual harassment a violation of Title VII because it is considered a physical or psychological manifestation of gender discrimination which affects the victim’s employment adversely in some way. The EEOC says in no uncertain terms that sexual harassment can come from a man or a woman, and it does not necessarily have to be between people of the opposite sex. The prevalent thought has been that sexual harassment is mostly perpetrated by men towards women, but just how common suits against females are seems to be open to debate. Even less common is the idea of same-sex harassment, and what can be involved in these types of cases.
The recent case of Nan Shi and Maria Zhang is being seen as part of a rash of sexual harassment suits in the tech industry, a culture which is seen to be dominated by men. This fact is in itself a misnomer, as women currently hold top positions at 33 tech companies, with nine women sitting on the board of directors. Three women are on the board at Google alone. Likewise, the case of Shi v. Zhang and Yahoo! is seen as novel because the harasser is a woman, and even more special because the case involves two women. One publication which reported on the story stated that this case of harassment between two women was the first of its kind.
In actual fact, sexual harassment cases in which women are implicated seem to happen more frequently than many people would expect. In 2013, the percentage of sexual harassment cases filed by men in the U.S. was about 17.6, up about 1.5 percent from 2011. That’s about 1250 cases in one year. Of course, not all of those cases were necessarily filed against women, as at least seven cases in the past year have been same-sex cases, though the EEOC is not officially tracking them in their statistics. Some of these cases were just as high-profile as Nan Shi’s case, with companies like Prada, Armani, Cheesecake Factory and the USA Network implicated in the suits.
Sexual harassment, especially same-sex, is not always about coercion to or referencing of sex acts. Many of the same-sex cases on record were filed by a male subordinate for another male for making homosexual or “unmanly” references, such as in the 2011 case of Boh Bros. Construction. Similarly, many cases filed by male subordinates against female supervisors have been for making homosexual slurs or belittling an employee by making diminutive sexual comments.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is far from a black-and-white issue. As broader terms are defined for what constitutes this type of sex discrimination, it is not surprising that suits which used to seem anomalous are on the rise. It may be surprising to some people how common sexual harassment cases against females actually are, and even more surprising that same-sex cases seem to be increasing as well. The EEOC has had its parameters set up to be all-inclusive and include all genders and types of discrimination in its guidelines since the 80s. The increase in suits formerly thought to be uncommon is thus less about any new guidelines when it comes to this form of discrimination. It appears to be more about different groups of workers looking into their rights and exercising them, no matter who is doing the discriminating.
Opinion by Layla Klamt