Mark D. White takes the Iowa Supreme Court to task for furthering the myth that men can’t control themselves around attractive women.
According to a news report quickly making its way around the internet, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a male dentist did not violate employment discrimination law when he fired a female assistant because she represented an “irresistible attraction” that threatened his marriage.
The legality behind the case is fairly straightforward, and hardly the most interesting aspect of the story. The assistant alleged gender-based discrimination only, but since all of the assistants in the dentist’s office are female, it’s difficult to argue that the dentist fired the assistant in question because she was a woman. The opinion contains a brief but insightful discussion of similar precedents, including a federal appeals court case, that came to similar conclusions. But the case itself raises some interesting questions about how we think about men and women in the workplace.
The assistant did not claim sexual harassment on the part of the dentist, but it seems she clearly could have. According to the opinion:
Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing. On another occasion, Dr. Knight texted Nelson saying the shirt she had worn that day was too tight. After Nelson responded that she did not think he was being fair, Dr. Knight replied that it was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going. Dr. Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Nelson recalls that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. However, Nelson does not remember ever telling Dr. Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended. (Opinion, p. 3)
As the judges write, “the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly” (p.15). Obviously the dentist acted improperly towards her—and the court is not the only body enabling that.
According to the opinion, the firing was instigated by the dentist’s wife, who was concerned about the dentist’s friendship with his assistant, including frequent texts, as well as how the assistant dressed in the office and how she behaved toward the wife. After consulting their pastor, the dentist and his wife agreed to let the assistant go. Was it natural for the wife to be concerned? No doubt. But rather than ask her husband to grow up, she asked him to fire the assistant.
It is the broader message sent by this case, not the legal intricacies, that has people fired up, and justifiably so. Male employers who are attracted to their female subordinates—which in itself is not blameworthy—no longer have to control themselves, but rather can rather dismiss the source of the “distraction” when it becomes “too much” to handle. Women are now responsible for making sure they don’t “arouse” their bosses, rather than the bosses needing to treat their female subordinates with respect as equals. This is like Mad Men with Novocain! And this doesn’t reflect well on the wife either: rather than asking (or demanding) her husband be a professional employer and faithful husband, she chooses to eliminate the “threat” to her marriage. The fact that she sees this threat as the assistant, not her husband who can’t control his impulses, reminds us that these outdated attitudes are present not just among men.
We can’t blame the Iowa Supreme Court for deciding the case on the narrow grounds in which it was presented to them, but it would have been helpful if they had used this opportunity to send a stronger message condemning the problematic behavior of the dentist and his wife toward the assistant. As it stands, this case only reinforces the message that men shouldn’t have to control themselves around attractive women and can instead shift the responsibility for this on women themselves—and we hear that enough without it being echoed by a state supreme court.