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Missouri Lawmakers Propose Ending Sexual Harassment By Telling Interns To Dress Modestly

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tara-culp-resslerSome Missouri state lawmakers have a controversial idea for preventing future sexual harassment cases in the legislature: Imposing a new “modest” dress code for teenage interns.

State representatives are trying to figure out how to respond to several incidences of harassment among their ranks. In July, State Sen. Paul LeVota (D) resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed two interns. And in May, House Speaker John Diehl (R) — perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in the state — stepped down after the Kansas City Star reported that he exchanged sexually explicit text messages with a 19-year-old intern.

In response, lawmakers are attempting to make changes to the current internship program to provide more oversight. And at least two state legislators — Reps. Bill Kidd (R) and Nick King (R) — have thrown their weight behind an intern dress code.

“We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” King wrote in an email to the rest of his colleagues after Kidd made the initial suggestion. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”

The idea was met with derision from Kidd and King’s Democratic colleagues, as well as roundly mocked on Twitter. Critics pointed out that changing interns’ dress codes won’t get at the fundamental issue of lawmakers potentially harassing their staff or colleagues. Plus, they argued there isn’t anything inherently distracting about interns’ bodies that should prevent their bosses from being able to go about doing their jobs.

“If my plaid jacket or the sight of a woman’s bare knee distracts you from your legislative duties, I would look for other work,” Rep. Jeremy LaFaver (D) responded.

Missouri’s legislature isn’t the first to wade into this fight. Last year, Montana lawmakers madenational headlines for approving new dress code guidelines that stipulated “leggings are not considered dress pants” and women should be “sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.” Female politicians in the state objected, saying the new rules created “this ability to scrutinize women” and were “totally sexist and bizarre and unnecessary.”

The argument over gender-based dress codes has also spread to middle schools and high schools across the country, as female students push back against the assumption that the way they dressmay distract their male peers from concentrating in class. Critics say this approach to dress codesreinforces the idea that women’s bodies are inherently tempting to men and that women are responsible for covering themselves up. The implicit message, then, is that it’s women’s job to change their behavior to prevent men from committing sexual crimes.

“Maybe voters should insist on a special requirement for men applying to be a Missouri lawmaker,” Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah wrote on Tuesday. “It could rule out any men who consider themselves to be lascivious, salacious and simply indecent.”

This blog originally appeared on ThinkProgress.org on August 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission

Tara Culp-Ressler is a Senior Editor at ThinkProgress. She was previously a Health Editor, Health Reporter, and Editorial Assistant for the site. Before joining the ThinkProgress team, Tara worked at several progressive religious nonprofits, including Faith in Public Life, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Interfaith Voices. Tara graduated from American University and is originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

 


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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby? Maybe Not.

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Is it legal to fire a front desk clerk for not being “pretty enough”? Not in Iowa. Last Monday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial judge’s decision and ordered Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America to trial.

Brenna Lewis was a front desk clerk at Heartland Inns in Ankeny, Iowa. She was promoted to the day shift, sight unseen, after enthusiastic recommendation from previous managers. Once on the job, Lewis’ loose-fitting clothing and unisex appearance caused Director of Operations Barbara Cullinan to express reservations about whether she was a “good fit.”

Lewis wore short hair, no makeup and sported an “Ellen DeGeneres look.” She was “tomboyish,” friendly, and well-liked by customers. Cullinan preferred a pretty “Midwestern girl look” on the day shift. She fired the manager who refused to reassign Lewis and demanded that Lewis undergo a videotaped “second” interview to keep her job. A distraught Lewis objected to the second interview, questioning whether it was lawful to require one just because of her appearance. Three days later she was fired.

When Lewis sued Heartland for sex discrimination, the company countered that Lewis was terminated for “thwarting” the interview procedure and exhibiting “hostility” to Heartland’s policies. The trial judge dismissed the case. Lewis appealed. In January, a three judge panel ruled in Lewis’ favor. On March 8, the full court denied Heartland’s request for rehearing, and ordered the case back to jury trial.

In some ways Lewis’ victory is not surprising. Over twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ann Hopkins, a hard-charging and aggressive manager denied partnership despite outperforming all other candidates in her year. Hopkins was told that future success at the firm would depend upon her learning to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”

The Court held that unless Price Waterhouse could prove that it would have made the same decision without reference to gender stereotypes, Hopkins was entitled to prevail on her sex discrimination claim because “we are ‘beyond the day’ when an employer could evaluate employees by … insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”

But are we? Consider this: Had Heartland Inns turned Cullinan’s personal preference for pretty women into a formal job requirement, the case might well have gone the other way.

In 2006, the Ninth Circuit received a great deal of notoriety for its decision in Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., 444 F.3d 1104 (9th Cir. 2006). The famously liberal court ruled not once, but twice in favor of Harrah’s casino, after it terminated bartender Darlene Jespersen for refusal to comply with its “personal best” appearance code. The code, which included both gender-neutral and gender-specific requirements, mandated “big hair” and a daily makeup regime for women.

Jespersen, a highly regarded 20-year employee, felt degraded by makeup. The business of a bartender is to mix drinks, assess sobriety, and maintain order. Jespersen argued that wearing makeup interfered with the deft personal touch and sense of authority she relied upon to perform those functions. Unimpressed, the Court held that her “personal preference” did not trump Harrah’s “personal best” grooming policy.

Employers, particularly in the service industry, adopt gender-specific appearance standards for competitive advantage, and defend them on grounds of customer preference. Fortunately, the law already imposes limits on this “business case” for discrimination. “Customer preference,” once a serious barrier to hiring minorities and women, was struck down long ago. “Competitive advantage,” the rationale for requiring stewardesses to parade around in hot pants, was rejected with the tart observation that the business of airlines is to fly passengers safely, not to sell sex.

Even if the required “look” is not overtly sexy, enforcing an idealized standard of feminine attractiveness increases the salience of gender over competence. This can undermine the authority of women whose jobs involve controlling the activities of others: police officers, construction supervisors and – yes — bartenders and flight attendants. While there may be rare situations in which idealized gender-specific appearance is a “bona fide occupational qualification,” the essence of most jobs is providing a service, not fulfilling a fantasy.

Yes, we have come a long way, but sadly, we are not “beyond the day” when employers can enforce gender stereotypes. It should not matter whether a stereotype-driven termination is the result of an individual supervisor’s preference or a company-wide appearance policy, but it does. This is wrong. Courts should know better than to give the green light to gender stereotypes “dressed up” as formal job requirements. If this trend is not reversed, and soon, the resulting effect on equal employment opportunity will definitely not be pretty.

Image: Pick UPAbout the Author: Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco attorney, and Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.


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