Here’s hoping your holidays are happier than Melissa Nelson’s. Nelson was working as a dental assistant when her boss, James Knight, fired her because she posed a threat to his marriage. Knight, whose wife also worked in the dental office, apparently found Nelson so irresistible that he just couldn’t work with her any longer. In other words, she was fired, Knight admitted, for being too darn hot. Nelson, who is married with children, had worked in the office for nine years before being sent packing.
Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court put a lump of coal in Nelson’s stocking when it found that she had no claim against Knight for sex discrimination. The court found that Nelson wasn’t fired because she was a woman, but because Knight found her so attractive. Even though that attraction presumably wouldn’t have existed had Nelson been male, the court found that this decision wasn’t ultimately based on gender, but on personal feelings. The court found it persuasive, for example, that Knight had hired another woman to take Nelson’s place.
Generally speaking, courts in employment cases have found that attraction isn’t about gender per se, but about chemistry. After all, the boss who favors his paramour isn’t treating all women the same; by definition, he is favoring one woman at the expense of others (and men, too). A male boss with an attraction problem discriminates, legally, only when he treats women similarly. In the case of favoritism, a boss who made sex the price of favorable treatment — and made the “product” available to anyone willing to pay — would cross the line. In this case, the court stated that it might have ruled differently if Knight fired a number of women because he was attracted to all of them.
But on reading the court’s opinion, it’s hard to avoid feeling that they have missed much of the point. This case is so chock full of gender stereotyping, it feels like we’ve traveled back in time to the days when women were first entering the workforce. For example:
- Knight’s argument is that Nelson’s very presence in his office was the problem — not his inability to control himself. Even in his own telling, Knight’s problem was that he feared he would be unable to stop himself from trying to have an affair with Nelson. This hearkens back to . . . well, to the Garden, really. Women are sexual, corrupting, the source of temptation. It’s not what women do or how they act; it’s just what they are. That’s how this case became about the hot employee and not about the boss with the active imagination. (Speaking of the Garden, Nelson had the pleasure of being fired by the tag team of Knight and his pastor, who sat silently while Knight read a prepared statement informing Nelson that their “relationship had become a detriment to Knight’s family.” )
- Despite Knight’s efforts to paint himself as a family man trying to protect the sanctity of his marriage, the evidence tells a different story. In fact, this could easily have been a sexual harassment case. Knight admitted telling Nelson that if she saw a bulge in his pants, she could conclude that her clothing –scrubs, according to her! — was too tight. He also told her it was a good thing he only found her tops too tight, because if she also wore tight pants, he would “get it coming and going.” Knight said that Nelson told him she and her husband had infrequent sex; his response was that this would be like having a Lamborghini — her — in the garage and never driving it. He also texted her a question about her orgasms. Strangely, few of these facts have made it into news reports about the case, nor did they figure in the court’s analysis. Somehow, this case still seems to be about the old-fashioned family man, possibly misguided but trying to do the right thing. And not about the icky horn-dog boss.
- Speaking of stereotypes, you have got to feel a bit sorry for Knight’s wife, who not only had to witness all of this at work but whose jealousy was blamed for the firing. In fact, the Iowa Supreme Court framed the central question of the case like this: “Can a male employer terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?” Oh the jealous wife, ruining everyone’s workplace fun, frowning on comments about bulging pants and orgasms. What a killjoy.
- For me, the strangest fact of the case comes with even more stereotypes. After firing Nelson, Knight — again, with his pastor — had a meeting with Nelson’s husband. Knight reassured him that his wife had not done anything wrong or inappropriate, but had to be fired because Knight was afraid he would one day try to have an affair with her. In other words, I just fired your wife because I really want to have sex with her, but I want you to know it’s not her fault. And I’m so glad we could talk out your wife’s firing, man to man.