It is commonly known that sexual harassment at workplace involves unwelcome acts of sexual nature by a co-workers or a supervisor, such as unwelcome touching, repeated unwanted propositioning, conditioning employment or promotion on sexual favors, etc.
Offensive conduct, however, need not be sexual in nature to create a hostile work environment in the workplace. Hostile non-sexual conduct (or language) directed at an employee because of his or her gender may create an actionable hostile environment. A pervasive pattern of abuse violates Title VII even if not motivated by sexual desire to drive women out of the organization. Rude overbearing, loud, vulgar and generally unpleasant comments by a male supervisor toward female subordinates, coupled with physically aggressive (though non-sexual) actions, may constitute sexual harassment if male subordinates were treated with proper respect. Interestingly enough, the fact that there were more women than men in the office does not make a difference.
A non-sexual conduct that singles out an employee based on gender may also be actionable and constitute sexual harassment/hostile work environment . In one California case, a hostile work environment was shown by evidence that male police officers engaged in overtly hostile acts toward female police officer, including stuffing her shotgun barrel with paper so that the weapon would explode if fired, spreading untrue rumors about her abilities, singling her out for unfavorable work assignments and shifts, making false complaints about her performance, and even threatening to disrupt her wedding.
Even staring, coupled with other factors, can constitute sexual harassment / hostile work environment. In one case, a female employee refused a male co-worker’s several requests for a date (which included divulges lewd fantasies about her). When she complained to her supervisor, the coworker stopped talking to her, but started staring at her in an intimidating manner. In light of his prior conduct, the coworker’s repeatedly staring at the female employee and the employer’s failure to stop it despite the employee’s complaints could constitute actionable hostile environment sexual harassment according to court.
In sum, the California law and the recent rulings by courts clearly indicate that the conduct does not have to be sexual in nature in order to constitute hostile work environment sexual/gender harassment.