Many Women Still Battle `Grooming' Discrimination
Women and the double standard: They can lose their jobs for looking too feminine, not feminine enough
BOSTON — TERESA FISCHETTE, an airline ticket agent, refused to wear the makeup required by the new appearance handbook at Continental Airlines. She was offered a behind-the-scenes job handling baggage, then fired. After much media hoopla - from the Oprah Winfrey show to USA Today - Continental backed down, changing the handbook and giving Ms. Fischette back her job.
Her case ends happily, but for many women, the struggle against ``grooming'' discrimination in the workplace continues. The question remains: What is fair in appearance standards?
``For every Terry Fischette there are tens of thousands of Terry Fischettes who are simply out of work, due to the `professional beauty qualification,''' says Naomi Wolf, author of a new book on women and appearance called ``The Beauty Myth.''
Those qualifications include the ``perfect'' weight, race, size, figure, coloring, and age, as set by the employer. While men, too, are held to certain appearance standards, Ms. Wolf says the ideal is narrower and more frequently applied for women.
Ms. Wolf cites several court cases won by women who lost their jobs: waitresses who refused to wear revealing clothes and makeup and TV newscasters considered too old by their employers. ``We've all seen the TV news, with the old [anchor] man sitting next to the nubile young woman,'' she says. ``As soon as a woman hits 40, she's off the air.''
When youth and good looks are currency in the workplace, women lose their value and run into the glass ceiling at a time when they should be achieving seniority, says Wolf. In economic terms, she says, earnings of women peak at age 45; those of men peak at 55.
Discrimination based on sex, religion, race, and age is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C., the number of complaints filed by women has increased steadily. The most dramatic rise is in ``discipline'' complaints, including grooming problems. The total rose from six in 1985 to 937 in 1990.
``Terry's case was the tip of the iceberg - she was fortunate enough to have the circumstances to follow her principles,'' says Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer with the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. ``But there are many women who find themselves in such financial straits that to lose their job would mean to lose their house, hurt their kids and families. Terry was lucky to have a husband support her actions.''
Not all women are so fortunate. In another case in which appearance figured, a federal judge in Alabama in April found an employer not guilty of sexual harassment. In his decision, the judge cited, among other reasons, that Katherine Young appeared ``unprofessional'': ``Young wore little or no makeup and her hair was not colored in any way. Considering the appearance of [defendant's] wife, it is obvious that Young's appearance at the time was not attractive to Davidson.''
Says Ms. Young: ``The judge is saying in effect, these are acceptable standards by which to judge women employees. And that's just not acceptable to me, to have a federal judge condone that type of attitude. I think it would be funny if it wasn't so sad.''
Though Young's sexual harassment case is more serious than Fischette's dress-code issue, they are similar in an important way: ``Men in authority are making decisions about women's attractiveness, and their jobs are on the line as a result,'' says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of 9 to 5, a working woman's activist group that operates a hot line for callers with on-the-job problems.
``Fundamentally, the issues of appearance are not about attractiveness; they're about power,'' says Ms. Nussbaum. ``They make it seem we don't have enough to make it on bonafide qualifications.''
In sexual harassment cases, good looks have often been used against women, says author Wolf. ``There's a double standard for women: you can lose your job for looking too feminine, or you can lose your job for not looking feminine enough.... If there was a right way to look on the job that would keep us being treated fairly on one hand, and protect us from sexual harassment, believe me: We would all look that way.''
Wolf points to two cases: a woman denied partnership in her law firm because the male colleagues said she didn't dress enough like a woman; and women medical students who lose advancement opportunities because all-male panels often say things like ``Her hair was too loose,'' or, ``She looks like she was dressed to go to a party.''
Just a few days ago, Dr. Frances Conley, a tenured professor at Stanford Medical School, resigned, asserting she had long been the subject of sexist comments and advances.
American Airlines and the Trump Shuttle still require female employees to wear makeup. Male flight attendants must have a clean-shaven face and hair above their collar.
``Makeup is considered part of a woman's professional appearance,'' says Lise Olsen, spokeswoman for American.
``We wanted to develop a consistent professional image, which air travelers really want,'' says Continental spokesman Dave Messing.
But Fischette, who has never worn makeup, disagrees with the idea that wearing makeup means a woman is more professional or cares more about appearance.
``What does wearing makeup have to do with how well I do my job in customer service?'' asks Fischette, a warm, articulate woman who has worked in the airline industry 11 years. ``I don't mind their requiring us to be neat and clean. But they were saying that I had to add something to my face - that I wasn't good enough without makeup.''
Northwest Airlines used to prohibit female flight attendants from wearing eyeglasses until a court ruled that unfair in 1982. Continental used to have strict weight restrictions for women, claiming that its customers preferred to be served by slender women. A court overturned that in the late 1970s.
Trump Shuttle spokeswoman Joan Fudala says if women don't want to wear makeup, they simply don't apply for the jobs.
But attorney Wunsch says that's unfair. ``That's sex discrimination in hiring. Just because you're driving them away doesn't mean their rights haven't been violated.''
Wanting slender, made-up flight attendants, says Wunsch, ``is using the body as a sex object in order to compete better in the marketplace. That's unacceptable in our sex discrimination laws. Men are asked only to be appropriately dressed.''
Nussbaum says these cases are bringing important issues to light: ``This is similar to trying to define sexual harassment. Ten years ago people said, `Oh, come on. You can't make a law against that.' Today, there is a law.''