Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

The Air Force is currently considering completely segregating new recruit training by gender in response to recent sexual harassment scandals, as reported today by the Christian Science Monitor. Following allegations of sexual misconduct by male recruit training supervisors who had sexual relationships with and in some cases raped female recruits, the Air Force is considering allowing only female supervisors train new female recruits. If the Air Force ultimately takes this step, it will be an unprecedented move for a military branch that has struggled to integrate women into its ranks.

Air Force General Edward Rice presented this recommendation to the Pentagon this week, as the military is still reeling from the sex scandal. Since June 2011, almost a dozen women in the Air Force have come forward claiming that their basic recruit training supervisors had sex with them, and in one case, raped them. After investigations and a pending trial that has so far procured a number of confessions by the supervisors, the Air Force has begun reevaluating its basic training model in order to avoid similar scandals. In response to the revelations, the Air Force also undertook a survey of women in the Air Force that found that one in five had been sexually assaulted, and of those just one in five reported their assault.

This sexual scandal in the Air Force, though unique because of the openness with which the branch has approached the issue, is still not surprising for the thousands of women across the country who have faced similar situations in non-military environments. The recent Kleiner Perkins Silicon Valley sexual harassment suit demonstrates that it doesn’t matter the industry, women in male-dominated environments often face open discrimination and unlawful sexual harassment every day. For many women, like the women in the Air Force survey, fears of retaliation or hindering their career advancement silences them from sharing their stories of harassment and abuse or filing suit.

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, has just formally responded to the sex discrimination suit filed by one of its female partners, as reported by the New York Times. In the response, the firm denied all the female partner’s allegations of sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation, claiming she had “twisted facts” in her favor and misinterpreted many of the actions by colleagues that she claims were harassment. The response filed in San Francisco Superior Court provides evidence that the firm will aggressively fight the charges by Ellen Pao who is still working at the firm. It seems, however, from the response that the firm may not succeed in its heavy-handed attempt to paint Pao as overly sensitive to workplace dynamics and not a real victim of sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

The response by Kleiner Perkins denies some of Pao’s claims while reinterpreting others, making this case mostly a matter of interpretation. The venture capital firm, which has one of the strongest track records in Silicon Valley in hiring female partners and directors, immediately highlighted this fact in its response to Pao. Kleiner Perkins claims that Pao never complained to the firm about the alleged discrimination and harassment she faced during the five years in question, and only did so in 2011 when she had already retained counsel. Once she did complain in 2011, however, the firm states that they immediately investigated the claim, including interviewing all female partners at the firm before finding her claim to be meritless.

The firm also denied Pao’s claims that when she complained about the sexual harassment she faced from one of her senior colleagues, one partner encouraged her to marry her harasser. The firm claims instead that partners she shared her complaints with gave her sound advice and she was in fact grateful to them. The fact that this seems to immediately contradict the firm’s claims that she never formally complained about the harassment and discrimination she faced is, again, a matter of interpretation.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday reversed a summary judgment in favor of the defendants and remanded for further consideration a sexual harassment and discrimination case against the Pelican Bay facility of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The case, Davis v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, was brought by Brenda Davis, a social worker who had worked at the California state prison facility for seven years and had faced continuous discrimination and harassment from her first day on the job. According to her complaint, during her first day at the male correctional facility, her supervisor told her that women were not suited for her job. Her supervisor followed through with his belief, and over the next seven years subjected her to discriminatory behavior: criticizing her more than her male co-workers for the same behavior, questioning her judgment and decision-making in front of her colleagues and giving her more work than her male co-workers.

Davis also claims she was subjected to lewd and inappropriate behavior by the male inmates that her supervisors did nothing to address. One inmate masturbated in front of her multiple times. Another obtained her personal contact information and sent her eight graphic letters threatening to rape and kill her. According to her complaint, when Davis complained to her supervisors, they accused her of bringing on the abuse and told her to just deal with it. When she asked to be reassigned to other inmates, they still forced her to interview the two inmates privately multiple times. During one of those interviews the serial masturbator again masturbated in front of her, subjecting her to further humiliation and abuse.

When Davis finally exhausted her patience with her supervisors’ lack of support and protection and their own individual discriminatory behavior, she filed suit. When she applied for a supervisory role she was qualified for, her supervisor chose an allegedly less-qualified man for the job. Her supervisor did not call her references but claimed that the man had better references than her to explain his decision. When Davis followed up on her formal complaint, she was summarily fired just a few days later.

The recent media reaction to the sex discrimination lawsuit filed against the Silicon Valley venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has mostly focused on the impact such a lawsuit may have on other women in the venture capital field, and the controversy over a recent column in Bloomberg News arguing that such sex discrimination lawsuits may actually hurt women trying to enter male-dominated fields in the long-run. Less discussed have been the actual merits of the claim by Ellen Pao, a partner at the firm, and what such a lawsuit might mean for other women working in male-dominated workplaces. According to the court filings, Pao alleges that while she was at Kleiner Perkins she was sexually propositioned and harassed, and when she complained she was retaliated against by being excluded from team meetings and e-mail chains, among other practices. If the case goes to trial, most of the litigation, like with most other sex discrimination cases, will center around the factual basis for Pao’s claims — whether she can present enough evidence of sexual harassment, systemic (“pattern or practice” or disparate impact) discrimination, the creation of a hostile work environment or retaliation as she alleges.

A sex discrimination claim can generally be brought under three often interrelated theories, as well as for retaliation. The first is that of systemic discrimination. Pao alleges such a claim in her filings, arguing that Kleiner Perkins has systemically failed to advance female partners and provide them equal opportunities at the firm, including in distributing profits and board seats. The second theory that can be advanced is that of sexual harassment. Pao in her filings claims that after she ended an allegedly coerced relationship with a co-worker the co-worker retaliated against her by excluding her from board meetings and important email chains and refusing to share crucial client information with her. She also alleges that another partner gave her a sexually suggestive book as a gift and invited her to a private dinner, which she found to be an inappropriate advance. The third claim that can be brought is that of a hostile work environment, or a claim that a company has created and nurtured an environment where severe and pervasive sex discrimination is the norm. In her filing Pao claims that negative comments about women were made during board meetings, such as that female partners were “buzz” kills and that there was a general refusal of the management of Kleiner Perkins to seriously investigate her claims of harassment. A sex discrimination claim can also be based on any retaliation that a worker faces when he or she complains about discrimination in the workplace. Pao claims that not only did her co-worker who she rebuffed retaliate against her, so did other managers at Kleiner Perkins who allegedly attempted to transfer her to an overseas office and recommended that she marry her co-worker to stop the harassment.

Pao’s case as such presents an interesting example of the kinds of issues many women face when venturing into male-dominated fields, in this case venture capital, but equally applicably fields such as engineering, internet technology, manufacturing or academia. While the merits of Pao’s case are yet to be decided by the California Superior Court, she certainly presents some strong evidence that her workplace was not an entirely comfortable one for her and her female co-workers, regardless of the fact that Kleiner Perkins has one of the strongest records in Silicon Valley in terms of hiring and promoting female partners. While the antidiscrimination laws do not require a workplace free from problems, they do require a workplace that does not target women unfairly. While many women integrating male-dominated workplaces may face similar issues like those alleged by Pao, that certainly does not mean they deserve any less protection than women working in more gender-balanced fields. The sex discrimination jurisprudence is clear: a woman has just as much a right to feel comfortable, accepted and valued in a workplace as her male colleagues and doesn’t have to suffer silently in the face of unlawful employment practices just to “fit in,” or keep from rocking the boat.

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