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NOTEBOOK

When does a company's dress code cross the line from being

a necessary evil to a Big Brother-style tool of institutionalized sexism? In

Las Vegas, sometimes it's hard to tell.

Most of the 37 million tourists who visit Vegas annually leave with

indelible mental images of the variety of scantily clad women available - from

sexy cocktail waitresses wearing little more than a corset and thong to

strippers to topless showgirls. The icon of women as nearly naked playthings

has been as much a part of Sin City's 100-year-old history as the one-armed

bandit.

Only in Vegas can a former casino cocktail waitress (Shelley Berkley)

become a respected member of the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other

hand, the city's first and only female mayor, Jan Jones, couldn't shake

questions about whether she ever danced on the Strip. In fact, Jones' only

foray into entertainment was when she hawked cars in campy local TV ads.

Sexual, available, come-hither women just may be the backbone of the

economy of Las Vegas, and its sister city, Reno. But one 48-year-old woman is

fighting the tradition.

Darlene Jesperson was fired from her bartending job of 21 years at Harrah's

in Reno for failing to comply with a dress code that went against her beliefs.

She had routinely racked up exceptional performance reviews, but a program

called Personal Best brought her career to an end in August 2000.

Personal Best required gender-specific rules on everything from uniform to

hair and makeup. Each employee who spent time with the public - male and female

- was given a professional makeover and then expected to duplicate that look

as closely as possible. Jesperson, however, prefers a simple style, sans

makeup. She tried at first to adhere to the policy but said that wearing makeup

made her feel violated and ill, like a painted hooker.

Outside of a few places (Hollywood being one), it would be shocking for a

loyal, proven and hard-working woman to lose her job simply for refusing to

conform to such a stereotypical - and old-fashioned - idea of female beauty.

But this is the same Harrah's that in 2003 got flack for pushing out 80

cocktail waitresses at the Rio in Vegas in favor of new "bevertainers"

(cocktail waitresses who also perform song and dance on the casino floor). Many

of the waitresses had been with the casino for years and were offered other

"non-public jobs," which meant no tips and, for many, a pay cut.

In both cases, Harrah's was within its legal rights. Nevada is a

right-to-work state, where it is legal for any company to fire any employee at

any time for no reason (unless he or she has a written contract). Probably to

ward off a lawsuit, Harrah's did offer to rehire Jesperson with back pay and an

exemption from the makeup policy, but she refused on principle and sued

Harrah's, claiming civil rights discrimination based on gender stereotypes.

She has lost at the state level and in federal appeals court, with judges

saying that Harrah's gender-specific rules evenly burdened both sexes (men have

to keep their hair clean and above the collar; no earrings or tatoos for

either sex). A lesbian, Jesperson has had her case taken up by LAMBDA, a

national gay-rights organization. LAMBDA lawyers have appealed the to Ninth

Circuit to hear the case again.

Interestingly, the Personal Best code has since been modified based on

employee feedback and is not even called Personal Best any more, Harrah's

spokesman David Strow said. The dress code states that Harrah's female

employees who work with the public (at its 28 properties in 12 states) must

wear "tasteful and not excessive" makeup.

Maybe Jesperson is fighting a losing battle. In Nevada, gaming (the PC term

for gambling) companies are king. Harrah's hasn't been found to be breaking

any laws. In fact, the company is supplying a commodity that its market demands

- hot women (and men) - for it to stay competitive.

I will be surprised if Jesperson wins. But the fight is worth the risk of

failure. Women who work in casinos don't need to be a tourist's fantasy, a

sexually accessible plaything, to do their jobs. This doesn't mean that there

shouldn't be titillation or sexy shows on the Strip. Vegas and Reno are

entitled to be slutty - just not at the expense of every woman who works here.

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