Use of Word “Bitch” Does Not Automatically Imply Gender-Based Hostility

by Joseph C. Maya on Feb. 20, 2024

Employment 

Summary: A work environment is considered “hostile” if a reasonable person would have found it so and if the plaintiff subjectively so perceived it.  Outrageous conduct and egregious acts that are severe or pervasive automatically command an inference of gender-based hostility.  In the workplace of today, crude or degrading epithets, while hardly the rule, are certainly not the exception.  One such word—“bitch”—has seemingly found a place of its own in some people’s daily vocabulary.  The question arises as to whether constant use of that word in relation to a female employee is sex-based and reflects hostility toward women.  The short answer is it can, but doesn’t necessarily have to.

A Relevant Court Case

In a federal court case, a female field technician for a cable company filed suit based upon a veritable litany of gender-based abuse.  She alleged male technicians received better assignments, more overtime, and required tools and equipment.  In addition to disparately harsh working conditions, she also alleged that her foremen continually referred to her as a “bitch.”  An appellate court found based upon the record before it that constant use of the word was sex-based and reflected hostility to women.  The operative language here is “based upon the record before it.”

The plaintiff argued that the word “bitch” is such an intensely degrading sexual epithet that its use should automatically result in a finding that it implies hostility toward women.  The court readily acknowledged that the use of that word in a variety of contexts reflects that hostility.  The court rejected, however, a rule that would automatically command from its use an inference of gender-based hostility.

As in so many employment discrimination cases, the finding of a hostile work environment depends upon the totality of the circumstances.  In this case, when grouped with other acts of disparate treatment, constant use of the word “bitch” could reasonably be found to contribute to a subjectively and objectively hostile work environment.

Viewed in isolation, however, it would appear that even repeated reference to a female employee as a “bitch”, without other evidence of other sufficiently severe or pervasive discriminatory acts, will not support a claim of a hostile work environment.  Each case, however, must be assessed on its own particular facts.


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