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Reasonable Woman

A standard used by fact finders in SEXUAL HARASSMENT litigation to determine whether sexual harassment has occurred.

Under title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000e–2000e-2 [1988]), it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex. Under sexual harassment guidelines set forth by the EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, the two basic types of sexual harassment are quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile environment harassment (29 C.F.R. § 1604 [1993]). Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer conditions employment opportunities on an employee's submission to unwelcome sexual advances. Hostile environment harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct that interferes with an individual's employment or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. The standard that is used in evaluating whether a person has been subjected to sexual harassment varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: some use a reasonable person standard, and some use a reasonable woman standard.

In evaluating alleged sexual harassment, the reasonable person standard is an objective standard of perception based on a fictitious, reasonable person. Using this standard in a sexual harassment case, the fact finder would ask whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would have felt that the respondent's actions constituted grounds for a sexual harassment claim. By contrast, a reasonable woman standard allows the fact finder to ask whether a reasonable woman in the plaintiff's position would have felt that the respondent's actions constituted sexual harassment. The difference is that the reasonable woman standard accounts for the different perceptions between men and women regarding words or actions of a sexual nature.

The courts that use the reasonable woman standard recognize a difference between men and women regarding the effect of unwanted sexual interaction. Because women historically have been more vulnerable to rape and sexrelated violence than have men, these courts believe that the proper perspective for evaluating a claim of sexual harassment is that of the reasonable woman.


Goldberg, Deborah B. 1995. "The Road to Equality: The Application of the Reasonable Woman Standard in Sexual Harrassment Cases." Cardozo Women's Law Journal 2.


Sex Discrimination; Women's Rights.

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