Imagine that your boss tells you that the sign that your clothes are too revealing is when his pants are bulging and that your infrequent sex life is akin to “having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

No, I’m not describing a scene between Don and one of his secretaries from the latest episode of Mad Men. I’m reporting actual events that occurred in an Iowa dental office between dentist Mr. Knight and his assistant Mrs. Nelson.

Unfortunately, the similarities with Mad Men don’t stop there.

Mr. Knight later fired Mrs. Nelson because she was too “irresistible.” In a unanimous decision, the all-men Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that Mr. Knight’s behavior was completely legal. Bosses can fire employees due to “irresistible attraction” even if the employees themselves have not engaged in any flirtatious behavior and if the employees are perfectly competent at their jobs. This situation did not represent gender discrimination under Iowa’s case law because it was driven by emotions and not by Mrs. Nelson’s gender. 

Mr. Knight viewed Mrs. Nelson as a threat to his marriage because she was so tantalizing that having an affair with her was inevitable. Because he fired her to “save his marriage” (he and his wife even consulted with their pastor before he did sacked her), Mr. Knight’s actions were perfectly legal. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of Mr. Knight’s assistants were women, and Mrs. Nelson’s replacement was also a woman, apparently further ruling out the possibility that gender was the primary factor in her firing, according to the court.

Although the men of the court followed the letter of the law, I can’t resist asking if they are capturing the true spirit of the law. Allowing attraction to dictate hiring and firing may not technically represent gender discrimination, but it is still maddening. When it comes to attractiveness and sexuality, there is a gender double standard that almost always results in women on the bottom in the bedroom and in the workplace.

One has to wonder, if Mrs. Nelson had instead been Mr. Nelson and was similarly attractive, donning hip hugging pants and bicep baring shirts, whether it would have triggered the same irresistible desire and a pink slip from Mr. Knight. Probably not.

Perhaps more to the point, in the event of a complete role reversal, it’s hard to imagine that Mr. Knight would have received his walking papers had Mrs. Nelson been his superior.  

Unlike men, women are often completely reduced to their appearance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Their attractiveness is regarded as the primary basis for their worth. Even in the workplace, where their ability to do their job should be the foundation for their value, women are reminded that their sex appeal matters as much, if not more, than their other qualities. Unattractive women—those women who are not thin, well-proportioned, young, and white—are often ridiculed, shamed, and ostracized by their peers and superiors (Berdahl & Aquino, 2009). However, women cannot win; even if they are attractive, biased behaviors still emerge in subtle and perhaps more insidious ways, through approving glances, appearance compliments, and sexual innuendos. Although seemingly positive, these behaviors still convey to women that their sex appeal is their most important attribute (Calogero, Herbozo, & Thompson, 2009) and can apparently serve as the basis for giving them the boot. For men, attractiveness does not come at the cost of competence. If Mr. Knight had not completely reduced Mrs. Nelson to her sex appeal, he might have found the willpower to control that bulge in his drawers, rather than firing a perfectly competent employee.

And here’s the rub. Although men are most often in positions of power, we deem them powerless when it comes to resisting their sexual urges toward attractive women. This is a dangerous proposition. We’ve seen how it plays out in the bar and in the bedroom – people who endorse such beliefs are more likely to commit sexual violence and to blame victims of sexual assault (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1995). Now, it appears that this all-male Iowa court is setting a precedent for similar aggression and blame toward women on the job.

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Copyright 2012 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D.

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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