Iowa Supreme Court: Woman too ‘irresistible’ for job
I was in my early 20s, holding a brand-new degree in business from the University of Tennessee and seeking a job at a local financial institution that has since disappeared from the Blount County landscape. Back then, I was young, slim, attractive. I was also married and in the prime child-bearing years.
The man going over my resume at the financial institution spoke highly of my qualifications for the job, then added that hiring married women my age wasn’t very cost effective. The reason: We tended to get pregnant and then would have to be replaced.
This happened more than 30 years ago and I can still remember the words, the man’s name, his office — and how I took his verdict as a matter of course and simply applied elsewhere. My, how times have changed.
Or have they?
You may have seen the news story recently from the Associated Press and various other sources about Melissa Nelson, who worked as a dental assistant for James Knight at his Iowa practice for more than 10 years. Although she was described by Knight as a “stellar employee,” he decided Nelson was too “irresistible” to continue working for him, fearing he would try to start an affair with her and ruin both his marriage and hers. So, at the urging of his wife, who also works at the dental practice, he fired Nelson.
Nelson filed a lawsuit, arguing that Knight fired her because of her gender. She did not contend that he committed sexual harassment. Knight’s attorney responded that Nelson was fired because of the “nature of their relationship and the perceived threat” to his marriage, not because of her gender. In fact, he said, Knight only employs women and replaced Nelson with another female worker. A district court sided with Knight; Nelson appealed.
The seven-member all-male Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote: “The question we must answer is ... 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 issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”
According to the AP story, Mansfield also wrote, “Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender.”
I find this disturbing on many levels. First, Knight said Nelson’s clothing was too tight and he told her, also from the AP story, “if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing.” Nelson said she did not dress inappropriately in the office and, in fact, wore scrubs.
Second, Knight’s lawyer said the decision was “a victory for family values because Knight fired Melissa Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.” Family values? Seriously? Since when is lusting after a female employee and terminating her job because of it a victory for “family values?”
Third, while the court seemingly based its decision on the law alone, what if Knight had acted on his impulses and raped Nelson? Would he be found innocent because he just couldn’t help himself? If I were a man, I’d find this whole debacle totally insulting, as if men are animals acting only on instinct without the free will to choose to do what’s right.
Fourth, from all the reports I’ve seen (google “irresistible worker lawsuit” for yourself), Nelson in no way encouraged the attention. (Note above where Mansfield wrote, “... an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct ...”) That the doctor made the comments he did to Nelson showed much more about his lack of character than anything she may or may not have done.
I’m anxious to see what else may happen, but this seems like a clear case of sexual harassment from all the reports I’ve read. All I know is, I would certainly think twice about being employed by or being a patient of this man, and I would certainly discourage any other woman from doing so, as well.
Linda Albert is Sunday Life editor and a staff writer for The Daily Times. Her column runs every Sunday in the Life section. You may contact her at 981-1168 or (email@example.com)