As reported by a variety of news outlets, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that an employer may terminate an employee due to an “irresistible attraction.” In this case, a dentist found his assistant extremely attractive and after working together for ten years he felt he was on the verge of having an affair with her. He then fired her because she was a “perceived threat” to his marriage. According to the Iowa court’s opinion, the dentist had insisted that the assistant wear a lab coat to cover clothing he considered too revealing or tight. His testimony shows these requests had little to do with a dress code or professionalism, “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.” Other comments have been widely reported such as “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” or in a discussion of the frequency of the assistant’s sexual intercourse, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamgorhini in the garage and never driving it.” And, in discussions with the assistant’s husband after termination, the dentist said “nothing was going on but he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”
Now, the Iowa Supreme Court is under attack for upholding the termination. However, the assistant did not claim that she suffered sexual harassment or that there was a hostile work environment. She claimed she was discriminated based upon her gender. The dentist in this case employs only women in his office and he replaced the attractive assistant with another woman. The argument was that if she had been male, she would not have been fired. However, it was not her gender that caused her firing. The dentist did not discriminate against all women. She was fired because he found her too attractive. And for this complaint, there is no constitutional right or congressional statute that prevents discrimination based upon levels of attractiveness. And the Eighth Circuit agrees with the Iowa justices; the justices cited Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co. (446 F.3d 903 2006). The effect of an individual’s attractiveness is not a criterion for discrimination under congressional statutes.
In other words, both a state and a federal court have found that if a male (or presumably female) employer cannot control their own impulses, the employee can bear the burden. Similarly, if an employee is so unattractive to the employer as to cause a distraction, the same logic would hold. As attractiveness is unlikely to be covered by the ADA or another similar statute, there is really no recourse here.
Again, this is not a constitutional issue per say, however, the implications and echoes of historical expectations of women embedded in this decision will have repercussions for gender equality. Men, in this case the dentist, cannot control their behavior around an attractive female. It was the female’s responsibility to remain chaste. I suppose now it is the female’s responsibility to be attractive enough to be hired by this dentist, but not so attractive that he as any ‘irresistible impulses.’