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In the United States, along with many parts of the world, lack of Gender Equality has created many cases of harassment and discriminatory conduct and comments towards women in the work place. Women are typically paid less than men and women typically hold smaller positions in companies than men. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of workers in the U.S. – “women earned 82% of what men earned” (Graf, Brown, Patten, para 1). In 1980, the pay gap between men and women was 89-cents and today it has dwindled to an 18-cent difference. With that being said, even though the pay gap between men and women has narrowed, it still exists today.
In addition to inequality of pay between men and women, there is also, at times, issues of gender based conduct and harassment in the work place. An example of this is shown in the 1992 court case Harris v. Forklift Systems. Employee of Forklift Systems, Teresa Harris filed civil rights case against the president of Forklift Systems, Charles Hardy, claiming that he created an “abusive work environment” and harassed her and targeted her because of her gender. The Magistrate did find that Hardy made comments several different times toward her, such as; “You’re a woman, what do you know”, “We need a man as a rental manager”, calling her “a dumbass woman” and even suggesting that the two “go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate raises” (Harris v. Forklidt Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). As far as harassing and discriminatory conduct, Hardy would ask female employees to reach into his front pants pockets to grab coins and throw items down in from of the female employees asking them to pick the items up along with making sexual suggestions in regards to the female employee’s clothing articles.
In 1987, Harris brought this unacceptable comments and actions to Hardy’s attention. Hardy was quick to apologize and assured Harris he was only joking, meaning no harm or offense. A month after Harris had confronted Hardy, he made a comment in front of a Forklift customer claiming she had sex with the guy. One month later, Harris quit her job at Forklift Systems and began her court case, suing Forklift Systems.
The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee found this to be a “close case” and held that Hardy’s comments and conduct did not create an abusive work environment and that the commends made merely offended Harris and would be considered as only offensive, and nothing more, by a reasonable woman. Even though the court found the comments and conduct to be true through the Magistrate, they concluded that the conduct and comments by Hardy were not severe enough to interfere with Harris’s work performance, cause her physical injury or severe enough to negatively affect her psychological well-being. The United States of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concurred and affirmed with this decision.
Certiorari was granted to solve a conflict between the Circuits on whether the conduct needed to cause an employee to suffer physical injury or seriously affect an employee’s psychological well-being for it to be considered an “abusive work environment.” Looking at Title Vii of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it states it is; “an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” (Harris v. Forklidt Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). Meaning, when the workplace is infused with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,” that is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment,” it then violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The Meritor Standard is used as a middle ground today between conduct that is merely offensive and conduct that takes an unquestionable toll on the plaintiff’s psychological well-being. Conduct must objectively create a hostile or abusive work environment that a reasonable person and the victim would perceive it to be in order to be held as so under Title VII. Even if no psychological damage is present, the conduct may have distracted the employee/victim from work, created low-work performance and caused the employee/victim to consider leaving the position or company. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court believed that the District Court erred by relying too heavily and relying only on whether the conduct caused the plaintiff physical injury or whether it severely affected the plaintiff’s psychological well-being.
As stated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, referencing the Meritor standard, the court ruled that as long as a reasonable person would perceive the conduct as creating a hostile or abusive environment then there is no need to consider the extent of harm done to the plaintiff’s psychological well-being. Meaning, in determining if an environment is hostile or abusive, all circumstances must be taken into account, such as; frequency and severity of the conduct, whether it’s physically harming or threatening, whether it interfered with the employee’s work performance, or if it is just merely offensive. The court should also take into account the affects the conduct had on the employee’s psychological well-being when determining if the plaintiff actually found the work environment to be hostile or abusive.
Forklift defended claiming that the conduct affected the plaintiff’s well-being, a requirement of the Meritor Standard, was not proven arguing that the District Court did not error in applying the standard. Even so, the District Court made its ruling only after deciding that the conduct was not severe enough to cause harm to the Harris’ psychological well-being nor did it cause her to suffer physical injury. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals Ruling and held that an environment considered abusive that does not caused psychological harm, will often distract them from their work, negatively impact work performance and discourage them from continuing their time with the company or even limiting them from continuing their career. This created the standard that if the questionable environment is reasonably perceived as hostile or abusive then it is considered to be a violation of Title VII.
I agree with the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. I believe Gender Equality and Civil Rights cases can be very subjective and that they are all very different, because of this the courts should look many different factors in determining if the questionable conduct is merely just offensive and caused hurt feelings or if it did cause the plaintiff to feel uncomfortable and create an unsafe, hostile, or abusive work environment that any reasonable person would perceive as unacceptable, with the being said, I do not believe a plaintiff should need to prove that the conduct caused physical harm or damage to their well-being in order for the case to rule in their favor.
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