Tag Archives: employment rights

Sex in the Workplace: Just Enough, but Not too Much

Laurie and Debbie say:

Conventionally attractive women get hired more frequently than conventionally unattractive women. Women in the beauty culture, on diets, getting plastic or weight-loss surgery and other beauty treatments, aren’t just looking for men, or self-esteem … they’re also looking for good jobs.

For Debrahlee Lorenzana, however, it seems to have backfired in a big way.

Lorenzana at work in a black dress and heels

This is the way Debbie Lorenzana tells it: Her bosses told her they couldn’t concentrate on their work because her appearance was too distracting. They ordered her to stop wearing turtlenecks. She was also forbidden to wear pencil skirts, three-inch heels, or fitted business suits. Lorenzana, a 33-year-old single mom, pointed out female colleagues whose clothing was far more revealing than hers: “They said their body shapes were different from mine, and I drew too much attention,” she says.

As Lorenzana’s lawsuit puts it, her bosses told her that “as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear.”

This kind of theory is not new. This is one explanation for Islamic women are told to wear modest dress and why Orthodox Jewish women shave their heads, because men who are not their husbands may look upon their beauty and be unable to control themselves. It’s been the responsibility of women to manage men’s sexual responses for (literally) millennia.

Outside of religious constraints on dress, in our times in the U.S. we most often see it as the time-honored excuse for rape: “Dressed like that, she deserved it.”

Now, however, at least according to Lorenzana, it’s a firing offense.

“Men are kind of drawn to her,” says Tanisha Ritter, a friend and former colleague who also works as a banker and praises Lorenzana’s work habits. “I’ve seen men turn into complete idiots around her. But it’s not her fault that they act this way, and it shouldn’t be her problem.”

She is suing Citigroup for being fired, and the lawsuit may get her fired from her new employer, Chase, where “They said I was damaging the reputation of the entire industry,” Lorenzana said.

So, what has Lorenzana done wrong?

First, she’s done what women have always done: looked wrong. Didn’t look the way the men around her wanted her to look. Didn’t fit whatever mold they invented this week. She says she changed her hairdo and her make-up and they weren’t satisfied. This can only happen because men (and women who actively participate in the power structure) get to decide how women should look.

Second, she’s “mouthy.” She’ll talk about how she’s been treated. She’ll complain. She’ll file lawsuits. She’ll pose for all kinds of pictures, sexy and businesslike. She doesn’t seem to be embarrassed either about how she looks or, much worse, about who she is. And that’s unforgivable.

Up until somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s, you could fire a woman for being too hot (or more often, for being too hot and not putting out after work). You could fire a woman for being too mouthy. You couldn’t quite directly call it that, but “everybody knew” that men decided which women to work with, and any powerful man’s reason was reason enough. Now we’re in a period where you are expected to take women’s work at face value, women in the workplace and even in management and leadership are much more common, and there is a basic social awareness that how a woman looks should be decouple from how she does her job, even if it is often ignored or misused. This particular story sounds like a blast from the past–a return to fifty or sixty years ago, which is one reason why it’s so upsetting.

One thing that makes this story different than it would have been in the 1950s is the 20-preteens and everything is sexualized. Talking about sex is much more acceptable than it used to be, and every advertisement and media message encourages us to sexualize each other all the time. So of course it’s more acceptable for men to say, “I can’t work when you’re around; you’re too sexy.” This pervasive attitude gives men permission to indulge themselves in “learned helplessness.”

Sorry, honey. Not sexy enough, too sexy, puts out too much, doesn’t put out enough, wrong size, wrong shape, wrong anything. But they’re not calling the shots the way they used to. This can only be major news because it isn’t normal any more.