Guilty of Working While Pretty – Did Seven Judges Embarrass Themselves?

16 Jul 2013

The all-male Iowa Supreme Court upheld their earlier decision to allow Melissa Nelson to be fired by her employer of ten years because she was “too attractive.”  No, I am not making that up.   Dentist James Knight acknowledged that Nelson was a “stellar” dental assistant but fired her because he was afraid he would cheat on his wife.  The court’s ruling is disgraceful.  There is no attempt to understand the woman’s rights in the workplace or her point of view.  Seven male judges went beyond upholding the law and upheld their own paradigm to protect themselves from their fears and weaknesses.

Per ABC affiliate, WJLA:

“[T]he all-male court found that bosses can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages, even if the subordinates have not engaged in flirtatious or other inappropriate behavior. The court said such firings do not count as illegal sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.”

That is one way to thread the needle.  Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  If my secretary likes to eat chocolate chip cookies at his desk and when I see him, my “emotions” are stirred such that I need to eat an entire bag of cookies in the privacy of my office; I get to fire him because my “feeling” is that he is going to make me fat?

If Dr. Knight is not capable of keeping his “feelings” and urges in check, he needs to seek help, not take it out on the people who work for him.  Perhaps focusing his attention on his next root canal would be a better use of office time than ogling his employee. 

Per Jeff Eckhoff of the Des Moines Register, the court ruled that:

“Bad behavior is not equal to illegal behavior.”

So as an employee, you are at the mercy of someone’s “bad behavior”?  You’d better not eat any chocolate chip cookies!  Regardless of the specific situation of these two people, these judged have set a horrible precedent, opening the door for employers to take advantage of “feelings” and “emotion” to terminate both men and women on the basis of a whim.

Nelson’s attorney Paige Fielder has filed a petition requested a rehearing.  Per The Des Moines Register: 

I am beyond distressed at the lack of awareness and understanding this decision demonstrates.  Women already have to balance on the very fine line of being respected, professional and well-liked in the workplace without having their perceived charm or attractiveness garner unwanted sexual advances, harassment and discrimination…

A decision like this is possible only when the decision makers have been sheltered from the day-to-day reality of what it is like to be a woman working outside the home in America,” Fiedler added. “It underscores the necessity of having panels of judges from different walks of life, of different races, with varied professional experiences and of both genders.”

And as reported by Caroline Modrassey-Tehrani of HuffPo:

“The only reason he was attracted to her at all was because she was a woman,” Fielder said. “The fact that it came from his feelings is not inconsistent with the fact that she’s a woman. Since they admitted it, it’s perplexing to me why it was dismissed.”

And per the rebuttal of Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, “anyone who understands the male psyche knows that it would have been difficult for the dentist to turn off his feelings for Nelson.  Men and women think differently.”

We think differently?  The sum and substance of Mr. Dacus’ statement is not about thought.  It is about a man unable to control himself.  Dacus might as well have said “boys will be boys.”  It is sickening to see men insulted this way. A lot of men are better than that and they are certainly sick of women who trot out the “men are pigs” argument.  But aren’t these judges, along with Dacus, espousing the theory that men are no better than animals that cannot control their baser urges.  Dr. Knight is in his fifties and hardly a teenager.

As to “feelings,” here are some examples of the way Dr. Knight “thought” and “felt” while Ms. Nelson was in his employ and under his charge:

Court papers say it was roughly 18 months before the end of Nelson’s employment that Knight began to complain about the distractions caused by Nelson’s appearance. Documents say Knight has acknowledged “that he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing” and on another occasion said it was good that Nelson had not worn tight pants along with a tight shirt because then he would “get it coming and going.”

The boss is always the one in the power position.  He signs the paychecks.  In any business environment, there are particular rules of conduct and modes of required dress.  If an employee breaches them, they get a warning, a memo, a talking to – something.  If a woman is guilty of inappropriate dress at the office, her boss is not supposed to talk about his “bulges.”  As the person in charge, he had breached a boundary, and after years of being titillated by this woman’s presence, and allowing or instigating out of office communication with her, he fires her on no work related grounds whatsoever…and seven men in robes find this acceptable?

Documents say Knight’s wife discovered in late 2009 that her husband had been exchanging text messages with Nelson (usually about child-related matters) and demanded that the assistant be fired.

So Dr. Knight bailed himself out with his wife at Ms. Nelson’s expense?  Then what is to prevent any spouse of any boss from walking into the workplace, deciding an employee is too attractive and demanding that her husband fire that person.

Knight was so concerned about not betraying his wife to an affair that after he fired Nelson, he hired another woman to take her place.  In fact, he has an all-female staff.  I hope he didn’t mention his “bulge” to any of them.  And if he did, would they be afraid to report him for fear of losing their jobs?  Anecdotally, it is unusual for a man who makes crude remarks to a woman in the workplace to limit himself to one recipient.

Along with many women I know, I have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment.  It was never invited but rather, compromising and even threatening.  When the man is a superior at the office, it can be intimidating to speak up.  Even if there is a human resources department – who do you think is signing their paychecks?  They are there to protect the company, not the employee.  If, however, the underling is the one behaving inappropriately, the boss has recourse.  That was not the situation in Ms. Nelson’s case, yet she still lost out.

Most shocking is that the so many in the literati and pundit class put forth the idea that we live in a “post-feminist” world, where women are equal once and for all and added protections or shouting about women’s rights are not necessary.  There is much evidence of late that the opposite is true; that we live in a society not as evolved as advertised.

As Ms. Fiedler pointed out, the decision of these judges reveals the dangers of living in a bubble; an incestuous environment where only one line of thinking – or feeling – exists.  How is this unlike CA Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight Committee, convening a panel on women’s health care and not inviting one woman to testify?  Also alarming were the findings by a 2012 Fourth Estate Study which logged in 51,000 quotes in print and TV media where women were outnumbered on all issues by three, four and even five to one – even though women are 51% of the population.

How long do we have to go before we realize we might want to ask a woman what she thinks?  How much longer are we going to blame a woman for being female?  That was the question these judges should have been asked.

*originally published on Epic Times*


Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, a shocking, empowering exposé “revealing the nasty truth of contemporary misogyny. This book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power.”  — Marcia Pappas, NOW-NYS Pres.

Available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.  #1 on Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.

Like Anita Finlay, Author on Facebook.

Follow @AnitaFinlay on Twitter.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.