In The Courts

Being 'Too Beautiful' Becomes On-Job Liability

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

For the latest example of the "soft war" on women, turn to the Iowa Supreme Court. Recently, it allowed a dentist to fire his assistant for having looks that might distract him from his marriage. We're not making this up.

Pretty businesswoman

Credit: Dan Goorevitch on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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(WOMENSENEWS)--Are you "too beautiful" to be in the workplace? Can your boss fire you if he thinks your appearance is a threat to his marriage?

The answer, at least according to the Iowa Supreme Court, is "yes."

Here's just another obstacle to women's advancement in the workplace; one of many that we argue create a new "soft war" on women.

Research finds that women are penalized if they are seen as too talkative, too competent, too aggressive, too self-promoting--or, ironically, too passive-- too self-effacing or not caring enough.

Now, a court of law on July 12 said you can be fired if your boss thinks you're too good looking.

This case arose when a 33-year-old dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, was fired by her boss, dentist James Knight of Fort Dodge, because he believed her good looks were a threat to his marriage. He said he would be tempted to begin an affair with her.

Nelson reportedly engaged in no improper behavior. It was just that her boss believed that he could not control his own sexual feelings, and so he had the right to deprive her of her livelihood.

This notion would be laughable, except that when Nelson brought suit for sex discrimination, an Iowa district court dismissed the case.

Amazingly, it found that she was fired "not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight."

When she appealed, the Iowa Supreme Court said the key issue was "whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction." The court ruled that the answer was yes.

Similar Case

Appearance was also a factor when a banker sued Citibank in 2010 for firing her because she was too curvy. Debrahlee Lorenzana, an attractive young Puerto Rican woman, was hired to be a business banker at a New York Citibank branch office.

She said her male managers gave her a list of clothing items she was not allowed to wear: turtlenecks, pencil skirts, fitted suits and three-inch heels.

According to her lawsuit, her bosses told her that "as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly 'too distracting' for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear."

After trying to dress more conservatively, which included wearing no makeup, she was told she looked "sickly," and when she left her hair curly instead of straightening it, they told her she should go ahead and straighten it every day.

She finally got the message that there was no way she could win. "I could have worn a paper bag, and it would not have mattered," she told the Village Voice. "If it wasn't my shirt, it was my pants. If it wasn't my pants, it was my shoes. They picked on me every single day." (The case went to arbitration; the results were not publicly revealed.)

What's the message here? Women can't win. They are constantly inundated by media advertising, telling them that, above all, they must be attractive and pleasing to men. But at the same time, they must be super-competent to succeed on the job.

A woman has absolutely no power to control how her employer will see her. Her behavior can be irreproachable and her competence unquestioned. But if her boss decides he can't handle his feelings, she's toast. The onus is not on him to keep his personal feelings under control, which we are all expected to do at work. Why is his concern about his marriage her problem?

'Classic Discrimination'

Why did an all-male court not recognize that in the Nelson case, the dentist's behavior was classic discrimination?

Should the law really allow men to fire perfectly qualified women when they perceive a threat to their marriages?

If this precedent is allowed to stand, male managers will be given broad license to fire women for all kinds of reasons. Suppose a male manager is in fact threated by a highly competent female employee who might be after his job. All he has to say, with no proof, is that he feels she's a threat to his marriage, and so he can fire her. Under this interpretation of the law, she has no recourse.

What if the situation were reversed? What if a female manager felt that her attractive male assistant was a threat to her marriage and fired him? Can you imagine a male court upholding that decision?

Women are expected to keep their emotions in check at work and if they don't, they are seen as a problem. But men can let their feelings determine their actions, with no penalty. For example, male managers who display anger are not evaluated poorly by their co-workers, but angry women are seen as incompetent and out of control.

Women are being urged to live up to their potential, get as much education as they can and "lean in" to their careers, as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg puts it in her best-selling book. But new obstacles keep surfacing where we least expect them.

Women can't keep leaping all these hurdles on their own. The courts need to be allies of women's rights in the workplace, not just another barrier to their success. We'll never win the "soft war" unless things change.


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I am a man and I regret that I cannot agree with the views that are expressed in the article entitled, "Being 'Too Beautiful' Becomes On-Job Liability" that is dated July 31, 2013. It is not because that I am a man that I do not agree with the views expressed in the article. Instead, I do not share them because the reasoning is faulty and premature.

The law, to be fair, has to be equally applied, consistent and unwavering. Otherwise why should one person respect it if its force, the respect and the adherence that it should otherwise command are in constant fluctuation?

Presentation is a requirement of the job. If a female employee presents herself as a sex kitten (also known as a sexpot), that could pose a problem, just as a much as a sexy man could very well pose a problem as well. And I submit that both sexes are equally liable to being fired under such circumstances (contrary to what is expressed in the article under review). This represents a fair and equal application of the law.

Finding a solution is not so difficult. A man, on the job, may be able to better conceal a beautiful body, because the clothes that he habitually wears envelop it completely and therefore keep it out of view of others. Women have the choice to dress in such a manner, but all too often choose not to do so. In the summertime especially, women have the habit of going to work with more than 90% of their bodies exposed (head, arms, underarms, tummy, back, legs and feet). In fact, the only body parts that they actually keep under wraps are the vulva, perineum and the breasts. Everything else is there for the view, for when they choose to take advantage of the let-go attitude that employers and the open society generally show toward female dressing trends. In this regard, I have often wondered why, instead of buying designer clothes, women simply do not do what Eve did in the beginning with Adam: wear fig leafs and nothing else. The effort would be way cheaper and far easier, especially since leaves on trees blossom in the summertime.

The basic precepts of social responsibility hold that one is accountable for one's willful actions. Whatever consequences that dressing sexily might bring about, women should liberally accept and learn from them instead of disputing them, because, visibly, their actions are the result of free will, not of oppression and/or repression. Women, in the summer or otherwise, are perfectly free to go to work in a suit and even a tie (yes, women wear ties, too). I have seen many, many times, women, especially those that have highly respectable positions, who make the willful and conscious decision to be very conservative in their dress, ostensibly because they want to be viewed on the basis, not of their bodies, but of their brains. Justly so, because the workplace (prostitute street corners, strip bars and other erotic establishments are excluded) is where one flaunts one's intelligence. The bedroom, on the other hand (and, perhaps, if you want to argue it strongly enough, dance clubs and cocktail parties), is where one is supposed to flaunt one's body, appearance and sexual prowess.

Having two genders living in harmony with each other requires that they each show respect, understanding and tolerance toward the other, much the same way as in the case of cohabitation (like in the way of a couple or of neighbors). Sexual arousal is common to both genders, at differing times in any one person’s lifetime and is provoked and heightened by the strategic display of skin. Women should keep this basic element in mind, when deciding to go out in public and especially when presenting themselves in the office. We would have so many fewer problems in society than we have now. I venture, in fact, that it would be a veritable utopia. And, as an added bonus, we men would not have to have shoved down our throats all this talk about discrimination and – now, more recently, - a supposed “soft war” on women!

I, Neal Bangia, have worked as a male secretary in offices in Montreal, Quebec, Canada for the last twenty or so years of my life. I believe that I have the requisite intelligence and experience to have been able to relate the foregoing and have it command the respectability and credence that it deserves.

@Neal Bangai - While I agree that women should dress appropriately for work, some of your argument is ridiculous.
"the only body parts that they actually keep under wraps are the vulva, perineum and the breasts. Everything else is there for the view, for when they choose to take advantage of the let-go attitude that employers and the open society generally show toward female dressing trends."

So women in your office wear thong bikinis?

You claim that women who work in your office with high-status positions dress conservatively and that is why they are where they are. I don't doubt that, but how many of these high positions are held by women? Is it half? I doubt it. Most of these positions are still held by men.

I wear wholly appropriate office attire when I go to interviews and/or work. I am well-spoken and polite. I do, however, have large breasts. I cannot hide that. If I wore a large sweater it would look frumpy and unprofessional so I usually wear a button down shirt showing no cleavage and a cardigan with slacks. It is still apparent that I have large breasts and that men look at them, and are sometimes distracted. How is that my fault? I cannot change my breast size (barring surgery).

My point is, there is more going on here than just women not dressing appropriately for work. I hate using discrimination as a excuse, but why is this happening? I feel that if you've never experienced it you cannot fully understand what it's like.

I will admit that I used to roll my eyes whenever I heard a woman make a comment like "I'm too pretty to get hired" until I experienced it myself. I look much younger than I am, and I'm attractive (I'm no super model, but I'm above-average) and I have had so many bad interviews at this point I am seriously starting to wonder why it is that I can knock a phone interview out of the park but when I show up to the subsequent face-to-face interview I get the up-and-down look and then feel like I would have a more engaging conversation with the table than the interviewer. It's not because I'm not qualified. They wouldn't have conducted the second interview if I hadn't done well on the phone interview. I'm reluctant to agree with discrimination being the reason for this situation but I'm starting to wonder.

This is surly sexual descrimination and has to stop !
We criticize the arabic countries for their unequal treatment of women and rightfully so,
but really, what is the difference here?
Why are men so afraid of the advancement of women?
Could it be that we would find out that they are actually better than us ?

Dispense with your nonsense, would you?!

Men are not afraid of the advancement of women for the simple reason that another man, more intelligent and better looking, could turn out to be just as much a threat to the first man.

What bothers us is the injustice of women's unfairly advancing themselves by using not only their brains, but their bodies as well, and manipulating the two so as to exercise an unfair advantage over men.

I suppose that you just never noticed that, huh?