Should a man be able to treat his female employees differently based on how sexy he thinks they are? Is it okay for him to give promotions and raises to a subordinate he is sleeping with instead of other, more deserving women? How about firing a woman because he finds her “irresistible?”
The latest example comes from Iowa City, where a dentist fired a long-term employee because he found her attractive. He was afraid he would start an affair with her and did not want to threaten his marriage, so she paid for his inability to control himself by losing her livelihood.
Ironically, there was no chance of an affair: the employee viewed the dentist as “a father figure,” the AP reports. She had no sexual interest in him. The entire thing was in his mind.
This is a crystal clear example of degrading and objectifying women: in the workplace, where people should be judged by merit, they are instead judged by how attractive they are to men. There might as well be wet t-shirt contests to allocate bonuses.
The logic judges apply to these cases is easy to follow. Take the case of the dentist: he had hired the woman and employed her for years, all his other employees were women, and after he fired Ms. Irresistible, he replaced her with another woman. So how could he be discriminating against women or based on gender? He was discriminating solely based on perceived hotness, and that is not illegal.
The same is true of the man who awards a promotion to the woman he is sleeping with. He may have overlooked other women and men who were better qualified, but it wasn’t because of their gender; it was because of his relationship with the worker he promoted.
Laws against sex discrimination aren’t the only ones that protect working women. There are also the more specific rules that prohibit sexual harassment. But they aren’t any help here.
Again, the judges apply those laws to these kinds of cases and find no legal violation. In the dentist’s case, the fired employee didn’t even bring a sexual harassment claim because the few “colorful” or potentially objectionable things the boss said to her didn’t happen to offend her. One example: he told her that if his pants were bulging, her clothing was too revealing. Classy.
Sexual harassment also doesn’t quite apply to the situation of a boss who is sleeping with a female subordinate and favors her over her colleagues. As long as the sexual relationship is consensual, is not tied to the subordinate’s employment (e.g., “sleep with me and I’ll promote you”), and the man is not sexually inappropriate with or around his other female subordinates, then legally there is no sexual harassment.
Still, it feels wrong. Something is off. Being fired for being too pretty is exactly the kind of objectification that feminism abhors. If the laws don’t cover this situation, maybe it is because the laws need some adjusting and not because the situation is acceptable.
Devising an alternative law is tricky. We don’t want to forbid employers from making personnel decisions based on appearance, because it is more reasonable for a boss to fire a salesperson of whatever gender who insists on dressing like a slob, or to ask a receptionist who dresses like she is at the beach to wear more professional-looking outfits. It isn’t focusing on appearance that rubs the wrong way, but focusing on sexual desirability.
Perhaps the solution is as simple as prohibiting bosses from making employment decisions based on their opinion of a worker’s sexiness. This would put the onus for the dentist’s lust on him, instead of punishing his innocent employee for it.
There is no good business argument against this rule. Legally, while it will be difficult to prove what was in someone’s mind when they made a promotion or firing decision, that is true in all discrimination cases and is not reason enough to make discrimination legal.
In addition to protecting the beautiful, adopting this rule might help give the more plain among us a leg up – no more discriminating against them in order to hire a bombshell.
Photo credit: Andy Sotiriou