‘Non-sexual’ comments can be sexual harassment

Two recent cases show that even comments that aren’t specifically sexual can still amount to sexual harassment.

In one case, a female doctor who worked at a clinic sued over crude comments made by a male doctor. She claimed that over the course of several years the doctor repeatedly made inappropriate comments about her weight gain while pregnant and about breastfeeding.

A federal judge threw the case out, saying that “general crudity” didn’t amount to sex discrimination. But an appeals court in Virginia reinstated the woman’s suit. It said that sexual harassment could include “highly personalized comments designed to demean and humiliate” the doctor and “ridicule her in the eyes of patients and drug salespeople.”

In another case, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that a male supervisor’s threats against a female employee could amount to illegal sexual harassment even if the threats themselves weren’t explicitly sexual or gender-related.

The supervisor managed an engineering project for a company that built nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy. A female employee claimed that he made advances toward her when his marriage began to break up.

When she complained, he said he wanted to kill her, choke her and “see her in a coffin.”

A judge dismissed the suit, saying that the threats were highly inappropriate but didn’t amount to sex discrimination because a threat to kill someone has nothing to do with sex.

But the appeals court allowed the woman’s lawsuit to go forward. It said that the threats were related to sex because they were the result of the fact that the woman spurned the man’s sexual advances.

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