Much has been written about “lookism” – the preferential treatment given to those who conform to societal standards of beauty. But in a recent case before the Iowa Supreme Court, a gender discrimination plaintiff alleged a sort of “reverse-lookism,” claiming that her male employer terminated her long-term employment because the employee was too physically attractive, thus tempting the employer to think about entering into an extramarital affair. To the great surprise of many who followed this case, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with the employer, declining to find him liable for gender discrimination. As one might expect, uproar ensued, with the media, the public, and the academic community eviscerating the court for its failure to recognize and rectify gender discrimination. In story after story, reporters, academics and pundits framed this decision as one involving an “irresistible woman” and a man’s “uncontrollable lust.” Yet while such characterizations made for catchy headlines, they were not quite true: The court’s decision did not hinge upon outmoded stereotypes regarding gender roles, but rather contained a plausible factual and legal basis for denying the plaintiff’s claim.
This article picks up where the Iowa Supreme Court left off, exploring the complicated reasons behind this employee’s failure to win her case, and suggesting alternate theories under which a similarly-situated employee successfully could challenge this type of termination. The article also probes the reasons behind the vehement (and often misinformed) public reaction to this case. It explores the ways in which the media systematically misrepresents women, particularly in the context of suits involving workplace gender discrimination, and examines the consequences of these errors, arguing that attempts to force women in the public eye into one of two molds – either pure and pristine with muted sexuality, or sexually promiscuous and vilified – has dramatic consequences for other employees in the workplace, for policymakers, and for the public at large.
Fink, Jessica, Madonnas and Whores in the Workplace, 22 William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 22 (2016).