Federal appeal accuses Harrah's Casino of sex discrimination

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 17 2003 11:00 PM ET

An appeal was filed in federal court Monday on behalf of a woman who was fired from her job as a bartender at Harrah's Casino in Reno after 21 years for not adhering to rigid gender stereotypes as prescribed in the company's new dress code. After enacting its "Personal Best" program, Harrah's reportedly terminated Darlene Jespersen in August 2000. The program required all women in the beverage department to wear makeup, which was specified as foundation or powder, blush, lipstick, and mascara. The women were also required to wear their hair teased, curled, or styled and to wear nude or natural-color stockings. "To me, wearing makeup should be a personal choice," Jespersen said. "I'm doing the same job as male bartenders, and they don't have to wear makeup."

During her two full decades working for Harrah's, Jespersen's supervisors consistently rated her "highly effective" in all aspects of her work, including her personal appearance. But because wearing makeup made her feel so sexualized and uncomfortable that she couldn't do her job, she resisted and was fired, she said. Jespersen filed a federal lawsuit accusing Harrah's of sex discrimination, which is prohibited under federal law. Late last year a federal judge ruled against Jesperson, saying the appearance standards were applied evenhandedly to both sexes; Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund then stepped in to handle her case in the ninth circuit U.S. court of appeals.

Federal civil rights laws have been seen as allowing employers to institute dress codes or other standards that impose different but essentially equal burdens on men and women. But Lambda is arguing that Harrah's Casino's "Personal Best" program is not an equal burden on men and women, since men are required only to keep their hair cut above the collar, their fingernails trimmed, and their face free of makeup. "This is a classic sex discrimination case," said Jennifer C. Pizer, senior staff attorney in Lambda's Western regional office. "Harrah's fired Darlene because she wouldn't adhere to the most extreme stereotypes of women, even though her supervisors praised her and her customers loved her."

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