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What is workplace sexual harassment?

The struggle for workplace equality has been hard fought. Respect and dignity at your job is a basic human right. But people each day endure harassment in the workplace based on gender.

To protect yourself from gender-based harassment and discrimination, it is important to know what sexual harassment is, what constitutes sexual harassment, and the laws that protect you from it.

How is sexual harassment defined?

Sexual harassment in California is any action that violates the 1964 Fair Employment and Housing Act. According to the office of the California Attorney General, "sexual harassment refers to both unwelcome sexual advances, or other visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature and actions that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on an employee's sex."

The motivation behind sexual harassment need not be sexual desire necessarily. Rather, sexual harassment is any inappropriate conduct based on one's real or perceived gender identity.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Many different behaviors may constitute sexual harassment, but, generally, sexual harassment is unwanted behavior of a sexual nature. It is usually comes in one of two forms: quid pro quo or hostile work environment.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing lists the following behaviors as examples of sexual harassment:

  • Inappropriate visual conduct: Ogling or leering, showing sexually inappropriate images, making gestures sexual in nature
  • Inappropriate verbal conduct: Lude or derogatory slurs, comments and jokes, sexual comments about someone's body, sexually degrading comments
  • Inappropriate physical conduct: Unwanted touching or assault, blocking someone's movements
  • Quid pro quo: Offering perks in exchange for sex
  • Retaliation: Making threats or taking retaliatory action after being refused sex

What are my rights?

If you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is important to act. Always keep contemporaneous written records when harassment occurs. Include the date, time, location, who was involved and describe the incident. Speak to your supervisor or your company's human resources department to report the harassment and figure out what steps to take.

You may wish to seek the assistance of an attorney and file complaints with the appropriate local, state and federal agencies. It's your right to feel comfortable in your workplace, and that should never be taken from you.

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