A simple cup of joe not always so simple
The days of women fetching coffee for the boss still linger in some workplaces

That was the headline on a story on the front page of the Business section of today’s Inquirer. A perfectly good headline — if disapproving in a feminist sort of way. But I couldn’t find it online.
While the same article (by Jane M. Von Bergen) appears at the website, it has a different and more subdued headline “Hot controversy: Fetching coffee for the boss.” A female receptionist was asked to get coffee for her boss. She refused, and was fired. So she brought suit in federal court alleging a “hostile and discriminatory work environment”:

Nine minutes after receptionist Tamara Klopfenstein complained – for the second time – about getting her bosses coffee, she was fired.
“I don’t expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day,” Klopfenstein e-mailed to her boss at National Sales & Supply L.L.C., of Bensalem.
Manager Jason Shrager told her the issue wasn’t “open for debate.”
Instead, the issue caused a brouhaha in federal court.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller couldn’t resist punning his way through a decision on the deeper issue – whether Klopfenstein’s managers had created a hostile and discriminatory work environment by requiring the receptionist to fetch them coffee.
He wrote that she had no grounds for her complaints of sexual discrimination.
Please pour Judge Schiller decaf before he puns again.
“The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act,” Schiller wrote. The fact that a vice president wrote “looks nice, dresses well,” on notes when she was hired also doesn’t add up to discrimination, the judge wrote.
“While the behavior of plaintiff’s supervisors may have been rude, gauche, or undesirable, their actions do not violate federal or state antidiscrimination laws,” Schiller wrote.
Klopfenstein, who worked at the company for six weeks in 2006, plans to appeal, said her attorney, Timothy M. Kolman, of Langhorne.

While I’m glad the judge threw out this legalistic exercise in frivolity (opinion here in pdf), I had a feeling that the author of the piece might have been leaving some of the details out, so I looked elsewhere. Sure enough, the most interesting stuff was not reported. Either that or whoever edits the business section (which is where the article was) thought that details like these shouldn’t be read by sensitive Philadelphians:

Plaintiffs attorneys Timothy M. Kolman and Rufus A. Jennings of Timothy M. Kolman & Associates in Langhorne, Pa., said in an interview that they intend to appeal the ruling, and that Schiller erred by failing to recognize that some tasks are “inherently more offensive to women.”
Schiller also erred, they said, by dismissing a retaliation claim in which Klopfenstein complained that she was fired immediately after she complained that she should not be expected to get coffee when it was not one of her listed job duties.
According to court papers, Klopfenstein worked for six weeks as a part-time receptionist and data entry clerk. In her suit, she claims that the office environment was tinged with sexism from the very beginning when a vice president of the company made a note after her initial interview that she “looks nice, dresses well.” After just a few weeks on the job, Klopfenstein claims that a male co-worker invited her to lunch in an e-mail that said “I feel bad you have been working here for a couple of weeks and we haven’t gotten to know each other yet.”
In her deposition, Klopfenstein testified that she found the invitation “very offensive” because “there is no reason why a man and a woman should go out to lunch together without any other party around. To me that’s a date.” (Emphases added.)

Via Crime & Federalism.
The things that pass for sexism these days!
I can remember when workplace sexual harassment meant, you know, sexual harassment. I have a serious problem with the idea that the task of getting someone a cup of coffee is “inherently more offensive to women” — even if we put aside whether it constitutes sexual harassment. Logically, that would mean that getting a cup of coffee is inherently less offensive to men, right? Otherwise, how could it possibly more more offensive to women?
To see this out, let’s assume getting coffee is less offensive to men than women. Does that mean it should become “men’s work,” and that only men should be asked to fetch coffee, lest women be offended by being asked? Can anyone tell me how that wouldn’t be sexist? If a man worked somewhere and could show that only men were tasked with getting coffee, couldn’t he sue?
And why couldn’t women also sue? If we adopt the plaintiff’s position, and the company were to show more sensitivity by defering to women, what would stop a woman from turning around and claiming that the company was preventing her from doing what had become “men’s work”?
It also bothers me that it’s considered “sexist” to tell a woman she looks good or “dresses well.” If someone (including me) tries to look nice and dresses well, compliments are always appreciated. So once again, if we assume it’s OK to say that a man dresses well, but sexist to say that about a woman, then what would stop women from suing for not being told they dressed well while men were being told they were? And what about telling an employee he or she dresses poorly? Seriously, suppose the boss wants men and women dressed for success. Does he get in more trouble for telling a man to dress nicer than if he tells a woman to dress nicer? As to the idea that a man can eat lunch with a man but not with a woman, please! If that isn’t sexist, what is?
Pretty soon, employers will not be in charge of their workplaces. The courts will.
I’m glad at least one court drew the line.
UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and a warm welcome to all.
Comments appreciated.
(But who’s going to get me a cup of coffee?)