The Yale Law Journal

May 2004

"Hostility to the Presence of Women": Why Women Undermine Each Other in the Workplace and the Consequences for Title VII

Ramit Mizrahi
113 Yale L.J. 1579 (2004)

When women undermine and undercut each other, vying for advancement, they are reacting to workplace segregation and low organizational power. Employers must work to integrate workplaces to the best of their abilities, ensuring that women are present in ample numbers at all levels of the organization. They must ensure that women hold positions of authority, supporting them if they are undermined from above or below. When full integration is not possible (as in fields where there are few women in the labor pool), employers must ensure that the women hired are protected from loyalty tests or intentional comparisons to other women that lead to dissociation. Yet responsibility for eradicating workplace segregation lies not only with employers, but with federal courts as well: Female-on-female sexual harassment demands redress under Title VII.

Critics may question why Title VII, and harassment law more specifically, should be used to address female-on-female hostility-based harassment. The answer is twofold: Such harassment falls squarely within the scope of Title VII, and its coverage remains true to the statute's purpose of eradicating barriers to advancement for women and minorities. As detailed earlier, the sexual harassment hostile work environment cause of action now covers all sex-based harassment that satisfies the required elements. It has developed to cover behaviors that were not originally envisaged by the drafters of the statute, including same-sex harassment. In the aftermath of Oncale, there is little doubt that hostility-based sex harassment among women would be actionable under Title VII.

However, hostile work environment claims should be used against female-on-female hostility not just because they can be, but because doing so helps achieve the original purpose of Title VII. Title VII was created with the intention of reducing segregation and eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of women and minority success in the workplace. Female-on-female hostility-based harassment both results from and perpetuates sex segregation and limited opportunities for women in the workplace. Thus, to the extent that employers structure the workplace in ways that give female employees incentives to compete with and undermine each other, they should be held responsible for violating the mandates of Title VII.

Some may argue that Title VII's prohibition of discrimination based on sex was meant to address male supremacy, and that a recognition of female-on-female harassment would be a significant departure from Title VII's goal. However, legal recognition of female-on-female sex harassment does work to combat male supremacy in the workplace. As explained throughout this Note, the exclusion of women from male-dominated jobs and from positions of authority creates hostile relations among women in the workplace. Holding employers liable for the dynamics that they have created among women shifts the focus back to segregation, and thus creates additional incentives for employers to integrate their workplaces and empower female workers.

Others may fear that liability will lead employers to regulate female relationships and potentially overdiscipline women workers. Some may even worry that if women do opportunistically undermine each other, recognition of female-on-female harassment will simply give them another tool with which to do so: the ability to "run to daddy" and complain about other women to their bosses. Yet all harassment claims carry the potential for abuse; the fear of unfounded accusations or overexuberant enforcement should not deter courts from extending protection to those deserving of it. A woman experiencing discrimination because of her sex should not remain without recourse merely because the person harassing her is also female. Discrimination based on sex is prohibited by Title VII, and so long as a woman can prove the elements necessary for a successful hostile work environment claim, she should have a cause of action. It would be a welcome change for employers to regulate hostile behaviors among women when many currently refuse to intervene in behaviors "between girls."

Women should not have to constantly tiptoe around each other. Instead, they should be aware of the factors that encourage them to compete with each other, recognizing that they can help each other advance and that the success of one can lead to the success of another. With healthy competition, women can push each other to do their best, supporting each other in the face of conditions that would have others thinking that it's every man for himself.