“Men can do whatever they want in the workplace.” That is Melissa Nelson’s summary of the Iowa Supreme Court’s second ruling that her boss was within his rights to fire her because he was attracted to her and his wife found out.
Nelson worked as a dental assistant for Dr. James Knight for ten years. He considered her his best assistant. There is no evidence that she came on to him; to the contrary, she says she was never attracted to him and actually thought of Knight, who is 20 years older than she is, as a father figure.
For his part, Knight found Nelson “irresistible.” Yet somehow he managed to resist for ten years. The direct impetus for firing her wasn’t his lust, but his wife’s discovery of texts between the two and subsequent insistence that Nelson had to go. Bizarrely, Knight had his pastor attend the firing.
Also bizarre is the case’s legal history. Nelson’s sex discrimination lawsuit against Knight went through the Iowa judicial system all the way up to the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled in Knight’s favor in December 2012. All of the judges on that court are men.
The strange thing was that, for only the fifth time in ten years, the court decided to reconsider its ruling, withdrew the original opinion, and issued a new opinion that came to the same conclusion. It took this step only after their original ruling garnered broad and largely negative media attention. That is exactly the wrong reason for judges to do anything. They are supposed to be swayed only by the facts of a case and the law, not by public opinion. So much for that ideal.
I wrote about the original opinion for Care2 Causes at the end of last year, noting that making employment a beauty contest for women (in which the winner loses her job) “is exactly the kind of objectification” that prevents gender equality. Men are judged by merit, but women, the Iowa Supreme Court announced, could be judged by pretty much any criterion men chose.
In their second crack at the case, which the men of Iowa’s high court issued this month, they abandoned their previous belief that 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.”
Their new take on the matter makes a distinction that is so subtle it is pretty much non-existent. The judges acknowledge that firing women because of “gender-specific characteristics” like their appearance can violate laws against sex discrimination — but firing them because of a man’s reaction to their “gender-specific characteristics” is just dandy. Knight got off the hook because, the judges concluded, he was motivated not by her appearance, but by his lust and the threat it posed to his marriage. But Nelson posed no threat — remember that she had no interest in a relationship with Knight.
Nelson argued that “she would not have lost her job if she had been a man” — which is clearly true, and seems to clearly demonstrate that the firing was motivated by her gender. Unfortunately, judges have not seen it that way. They have ruled that “sexual favoritism,” where a boss favors a female employee he is sexually involved with over other women who work for him, is not illegal sex discrimination. The reverse — firing a woman because she is your sexual favorite — is okay too.
All of Knight’s assistants are female, including the one who replaced Nelson. The judges used this fact as proof that Knight didn’t fire people because they were women. If he did, he would have fired his whole staff.
The takeaway message: a man can treat female employees differently, whether better or worse, if he is attracted to them, but not if he isn’t. My advice to women with male supervisors: look as crappy as you can when you go to work. Dress dumpy, don’t bathe, whatever. And act unappealing. I have no idea what that means, but do it. Even better: workplace uniforms — burkas for everyone, female and male. And maybe voice modulators so supervisors can’t even tell which employees are women and which are men. Maybe that is what it takes to safely be female while working, at least in Iowa.
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