Guard against sexual harassment in IT industry
The fight kicked off an enhanced era of litigation by women, and occasionally men, who
make allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace or who have been subjected to what
the law calls a hostile working environment.
Recent Aberdeen Proving Ground cases in the Army and the withdrawal of Air Force Gen.
Joseph W. Ralston's nomination as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have demonstrated
that issues of sex, consent and authority, adultery and good order occur at all levels.
Our own information technology field, in companies and in government, is a highly
merit-based place where you'll find many women professionals.
Staffed as it is with smart, aggressive people working long hours and traveling
together, IT is generating its share of sexual harassment and discrimination cases.
Compared to instances of gross misconduct, many cases brought to court in the
post-Thomas world are more subtle in the nature of the overwhelmingly male conduct that
has given offense and the degree to which norms of legality cannot keep pace with change.
I have recently been involved as counsel in a series of such cases. Some involve women
who believe they have been victims of sexual harassment or failed to achieve promotion or
advancement because of their sex. Often, the charges aren't against an individual but
against the corporation or agency.
These cases are extremely painful. There is only one more caustic acid that can be
spilled on a person's employment reputation than the allegation of sexual harassment, and
that is the allegation of racial discrimination.
Here is some distilled wisdom from the cases, some of it banal and so apparent it
hardly seems necessary to state except that people seem to keep making the same mistakes:
Despite the cost and risk, litigate and fight one case through to
resolution to establish credibility. But if you have done wrong, pay up.
Touching, grabbing and consenting sex cases aside, the more profound issues are whether
women and minorities are being discriminated against in hiring and promotion. This is far
more difficult to evaluate.
There are volumes of analysis and interpretation of court decisions relating to race
and sex discrimination pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and state
antidiscrimination laws. Despite these authoritative sources, whether discrimination has
occurred is still determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis.
To distill several cases into a single thought: Promote qualified women and minorities
and treat them with equal dignity. The easiest way to defeat cases alleging glass ceilings
or discrimination is to have women and people of color in management testify about your
organization's positive qualities toward them.
The majority of the work force in the 21st century will be dynamic, female and
Get used to it because it's the American way.
Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell & Ryan. He
has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at [email protected].