It is hard enough for women employees to get promotions at the same rate as their male counterparts. It’s even harder when those promotions are followed by rumors that the woman must have slept her way to the top, rather than earning them on their own merit.
In less than two years, Evangeline Parker was promoted six times at Reema Consulting Services, Inc., rising from a low-level clerk to Assistant Operations Manager of the entire Sterling, Virginia facility. Sadly, and perhaps predictably, those promotions generated the sexist rumor that she slept with a superior, especially from male colleagues Parker bypassed on her ascent, despite them starting out around the same time. And it turns out those rumors, along with other sex-based conduct, can constitute sex discrimination in the workplace.
Sexually Explicit Rumors
According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Parker’s corporate climb followed an all-too-familiar path:
About two weeks after Parker assumed that position, she learned that “certain male employees were circulating within RCSI” “an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor about her” that “falsely and maliciously portrayed her as having [had] a sexual relationship” with a higher-ranking manager, Demarcus Pickett, in order to obtain her management position. The rumor originated with Donte Jennings, another RCSI employee, who began working at RCSI at the same time as Parker and in the same position. Because of her promotions, however, Parker soon became Jennings’ superior, making him jealous of and ultimately hostile to her achievement. The highest-ranking manager at the warehouse facility, Larry Moppins, participated in spreading the rumor.
As that malicious rumor spread, Parker claimed she “was treated with open resentment and disrespect” from many of her coworkers — including those she was now responsible for supervising. Parker’s “work environment became increasingly hostile,” and she filed a complaint with RCSI’s human resources department. Ultimately, however, Parker was fired while none of the male employees who participated in spreading the rumor or her harassment were disciplined.
Parker sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but a district court dismissed the claim, reasoning that the harassment she suffered was “not … harassment based upon gender. It [was] based upon false allegations of conduct by her.” But she appealed, and the Fourth Circuit agreed that she suffered gender-based discrimination:
She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labelled as “sluts” or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain …
In short, because “traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior stubbornly persist in our society,” and “these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men,” it is plausibly alleged that Parker suffered harassment because she was a woman.
Therefore, rumors about women employees sleeping with supervisors in order gain promotions, raises, advancement, or any other deferential treatment can be considered sex discrimination under Title VII.