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.
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?
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.
Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women,” to be published in October by Tarcher-Penguin.