The Lawletter Vol 34 No 12, December 7, 2010
Steve Friedman, Senior Attorney National Legal Research Group,
Title VII prohibits employers from taking adverse employment action simply because an employee's "appearance . . . does not conform to stereotypical gender roles." Doe v. Belleville, 119 F.3d 563, 580 (7th Cir. 1997), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 523 U.S. 1001 (1998). The Supreme Court has long held that sex stereotyping can violate Title VII when it influences employment decisions. See Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The critical issue in these cases is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not. Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., 523 U.S. 75, 80 (1998).
Although Title VII provides an exception for "bona fide occupational qualification[s] reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise," 42 U.S.C. § 2000e‑2(e)(1), that exception does not typically include one's attractiveness. Thus, whereas physical attractiveness may well be a bona fide occupational qualification for cheerleaders and fashion models, see Lewis v. Heartland Inns of Am., 591 F.3d 1033, 1043 (8th Cir. 2010) (Loken, C.J., dissenting) (suggesting same), it is clear that "female sex appeal" is not a bona fide occupational qualification for flight attendants and ticket agents, see id. at 1036 n.1 (citing Wilson v. Sw. Airlines, 517 F. Supp. 292 (N.D. Tex. 1981)).
In a recent example, the Eighth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer where a female plaintiff-employee proffered evidence that she had been terminated from her position as a front desk worker at a hotel because her "tomboyish" look did not comport with the "pretty," "Midwestern girl look" the hotel desired at the front desk. See id. at 1041-42.
Other violations of Title VII have occurred where female flight attendants were required to be comparatively thinner than male flight attendants, see Frank v. United Airlines, 216 F.3d 845 (9th Cir. 2000); where a female lobby attendant was terminated for refusing to wear a sexually provocative uniform, see EEOC v. Sage Realty, 507 F. Supp. 599 (S.D.N.Y. 1981); where only women employees were compelled to wear uniforms, see Carroll v. Talman Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n of Chi., 604 F.2d 1028 (7th Cir. 1979); and where only female flight attendants were required to wear contact lenses instead of glasses, see Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, 366 F. Supp. 763 (D.D.C. 1973), aff'd in part, vacated and remanded in part on other grounds, 567 F.2d 429 (D.C. Cir. 1976).