Court backs firing of woman deemed ‘too attractive’

Text by: Anne-Diandra LOUARN
3 min

The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld a dentist’s decision to fire his female assistant for being too attractive and therefore a threat to his marriage. The woman’s lawyer has said the all-male court’s decision sends a harmful message to women.


After ten years of working as a dentist’s assistant in the Midwestern state of Iowa, 32-year-old Melissa Nelson was fired on January 4, 2010. The reason, according to her boss, Dr. James Knight, was that she was too attractive.

Knight said her assistant posed a threat to his marriage. Nelson sued her boss for gender discrimination.

Two years later, on December 21, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of the accused, saying that Knight had acted legally in firing Nelson. The exclusively male court said employers could fire employees they saw as an “irresistible attraction”, even if those employees had done nothing wrong. Those firings are not discriminatory, because they are motivated by feelings, not gender, Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote.

“For the seven men on the Iowa Supreme Court not to ‘get it’ is shocking and disheartening,” Nelson’s lawyer, Paige Fiedler, said in a statement. “It underscores the need for judges on the bench to be diverse in terms of their gender, race, and life experiences.”

The defence, on the other hand, said the decision made sense. “Our position has always been Mrs. Nelson was never terminated because of her gender, she was terminated because of concerns her behavior was not appropriate in the workplace,” the dentist’s lawyer, Stuart Cochrane, said.

Nelson, who is married, has said she is “devastated” by the decision and told CNN that she had always worn appropriate long- or short-sleeved t-shirts to work.

A depressing message for women

According to documents in the court’s possession, Knight had started making sexually charged comments about Nelson’s sex life roughly 18 months before he fired her.

Nelson testified that Knight had inquired about the frequency of her orgasms over text message.

When Knight’s wife, Jeanne, also an employee at the dental practice, discovered the message, she demanded that her husband fire Nelson.

The couple then consulted a pastor at their church, who encouraged Knight to fire Nelson in order to protect his marriage.

“I think it is completely wrong,” Nelson told ABC news television. “I think it is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the work force.”

Nelson’s lawyer also addressed what she sees as a depressing lesson to be gleaned from the decision. “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,” Fiedler told ABC.

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