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
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.