Irresistible woman fired

Iowa’s Supreme Court has caused a furor by upholding a lower court’s decision that a dentist was within his legal rights for firing an employee because he found her to be “irresistible.” After working as a dental assistant in the office of Dr. James Knight for over ten years, Melissa Nelson was fired in early 2010–not because she was failing at her job–but because her mere presence was too much of a temptation (Yahoo News).

Interestingly, the testimony in the case seems to indicate that it was Dr. Knight and not Melissa Nelson who acted inappropriately.  On one occasion, in response to a comment made about her lack of a sex life, the doctor stated, “that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it” (ABC). On another occasion, he commented that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know that what she was wearing was inappropriate. Nelson, a married mother of two, insists that she wore scrubs in the office.  And in one final incident, Dr. Knight sent a text to Nelson asking her how often she experienced orgasm.  She did not respond (CNN).

Yet despite the evidence that seemingly points to sexual harassment and gender discrimination on his part, the Supreme Court ruled that Dr. Knight was within his legal rights when he chose to fire Nelson after his wife, who also worked in the dental practice, found out about his text messages. In coming to this decision, Supreme Court Justice Edward M. Mansfield offered this explanation: “The question we must answer is … whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction” (CNN). Apparently, that answer was yes, as the court decided 7-0 in favor of Dr. Knight: “Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender” (ABC).

Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, disagreed, and had harsh words for the all-male court: “These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires. If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it” (ABC). That certainly sounds like gender discrimination to me. Those who believe that gender equality in the workplace has been achieved should take a close look at this case, because it is a stark example of how much work still needs to be done.

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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