Opinion Columns & Blogs

January 2, 2013

Mary Sanchez: Women can be fired for being too hot?

Just when women think that equality between the sexes is nigh, along comes something outlandish to snap us into place.

Just when women think that equality between the sexes is nigh, along comes something outlandish to snap us into place.

The latest reminder was delivered by the Iowa Supreme Court. In a 7-0 decision, it ruled that a dentist could fire his assistant merely because he found her presence in the office to be too titillating – an “irresistible attraction” are the words chosen by Justice Edward Mansfield in his opinion.

That’s right, ladies. If the boss finds you too hot, you can be fired. This is not a joke, although portions of the December decision read like the satirical news site the Onion.

Male immaturity just got a big thumbs-up from the all-male Iowa Supreme Court.

Melissa Nelson, 32, had been a valued employee for more than 10 years. Dentist James H. Knight, 53, admitted in court records that she was “the best dental assistant he ever had.”

Both are married with children and insist they did not have a sexual relationship. However, Knight is a man you wouldn’t want as a boss and probably not as a husband. He clearly crossed the line of civility, judging by examples in the court records. He told Nelson “that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” according to court documents. The dentist admitted telling Nelson that her lack of a sex life was akin to “having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” He also texted her asking how often she had orgasms.

Finally, Knight’s wife (who also worked in the office) grew concerned. At her insistence, Nelson was fired, given one month’s severance.

The dentist argued that he was within his rights to fire Nelson, as she was a threat to his marriage. He feared he wouldn’t be able to resist an affair.

This man needed a marriage counselor, not a free pass from the state Supreme Court.

And just what were the justices thinking? Surely they know that Knight’s lame justification has long been used to keep women out of particular jobs. The idea is that with females around, men won’t be able to control themselves. And we can’t have that, now can we?

Law enforcement, the military, firefighting, construction – any number of fields have used this argument to exclude women.

Nelson’s case was undercut by the fact that other women, presumably more resistible ones, were also employed in the office. The case also did not meet guidelines for “a hostile work environment” or “abusive atmosphere.” Nelson didn’t sue for that. Her complaint was based on the firing. She argued that she was let go because of her gender.

Men, too, have reason to find the ruling a little bit insulting. It treats them like little boys. It implies that they are incapable of controlling their sexual urges. Women must bear the burden of maintaining chaste relations between the sexes.

The sad reality is that there are no legal protections against much of the demeaning, ridiculously immature behavior that still occurs far too often in workplaces. And, yes, women can be offensive, too, although there is no clear evidence Nelson behaved in a questionable manner. Knight complained of her tight clothing. In interviews, she has said she wore scrubs.

In the course of their deliberations about what to do about Knight’s impure thoughts toward Nelson, the dentist and his wife sought the advice of their pastor. The pastor endorsed their idea of firing the other woman, even though he knew nothing had transpired between her and the dentist. If this is what passes for defending traditional marriage, that institution is in trouble.

It’s going to take a few more generations to breed that sort of shortsighted foolishness away. And don’t expect the courts to help.

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