By Amy Silverman
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He fell in love with women's clothing, in part because women are such enthusiastic and social shoppers, in part for the merchandise itself.
"It changes. It's always new," he gushes. "Men's clothing is always the same: Suits are always the same, tee shirts are always the same, shorts. Boring!"
Before the next year ended, he had been promoted to assistant buyer, a year and a half later to assistant store manager. But then he longed to return to women's clothing.
He moved into a very elegant and expensive women's boutique called Femina, then was hired away by another called Capriccio. But he found that managing a small shop was like an overbearing marriage and he wanted the free time that he had while working for a department store.
Dick easily landed a position managing designer sportswear at Bullock's, which he kept until the economy forced Bullock's to close that department. Rather than move out of women's designer clothing and into another area, Dick decided to move on.
And, so in 1992, ten years into his retail career, Dick Kovacic applied for a manager's job at Lillie Rubin. It was a step down in the quality of merchandise as far as he was concerned.
"The merchandise is not top-designer," he says. "I've sold all that merchandise and managed areas that carried that merchandise, so I have sold on their level."
The store's management might have found some excuse not to hire him, but instead chose to say that because its salespeople spent a lot of time bringing clothing into the fitting rooms for its pampered customers and because Dick is a man, he would just not work out at all.
"I was very upset after being told that I can't work in women's areas," he says. After all, he had spent ten years doing so already.
He marched down to the Phoenix office of EEOC and filed a five-line complaint.
"I was not hired for the Manager position on August 17, 1992," it began.
"Ms. Mary L'Estrange, Director of Stores, said it was not their policy to hire males for this position.
"I believe I have been discriminated against because of my sex, male, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended."
He then went about his business. Within months, Dick had a new job in the Armani boutique at I. Magnin.
"I did not come in saying 'I want to work in such and such an area,'" he relates. "They looked at my experience and said, 'He'd be great for Armani.' They just put me in the position."
When I. Magnin closed in 1994, Dick Kovacic already had been recruited for his current job.
The EEOC complaint, meanwhile, was percolating through the federal bureaucracy.
Even though it is against federal law to discriminate on the basis of race, sex or religion, you must go through EEOC before you can sue anyone for such civil-rights violations. EEOC can then try to negotiate with the employer on behalf of the offended party, it can file a class-action suit or, as in Dick Kovacic's case, can issue a notification of right to sue.
It is not unlawful to discriminate, as the law says, "in those instances where religion, sex or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification."
One supposes, for example, that it would be hard to be a rabbi if one were not of the Jewish faith. But figuring exactly which jobs require being female as a bona fide occupational qualification is a bit more difficult.
Women sportswriters, after all, have bullied their way into men's locker rooms despite any claims athletes have to privacy. (We have personally seen female sportswriters in the act of interviewing athletes with exposed private parts.) No one would question the credentials of a male gynecologist, who has far more access to women's privacy than any man handing a gown through a dressing-room door.
In some rolling-eyes media accounts, Dick Kovacic's case has been likened to the EEOC decision that the Hooters chain had no legal right to ban male employees from its restaurants.
"They both have to do with what is a bona fide occupation qualification," says Ellen Vargyas, legal counsel for EEOC in Washington, D.C. "It has been reported that Lillie Rubin refuses to hire men for a wide variety of positions and Hooters refuses to hire men for a wide variety of positions as well. The questions both go to Title VII. Sex discrimination is prohibited and the only defense of sex discrimination is where sex is a bona fide occupational qualification."
But the Hooters and Lillie Rubin cases differ greatly in the professional qualifications the jobs require. The Hooters case seems frivolous, in part because it forces the restaurant chain to admit that the only reason it needs to hire women is for their bust lines. And it's a ridiculous premise that a man would even want equal status in a bar whose whole reason for existing is so that other men can stare at busty waitresses in tight shirts. But there is no justifiable legal reason men should be excluded from such a job.