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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Miceli

The Trouble with Dress Codes

Dress codes are a particularly tricky area in the workplace. How can employers make sure their dress code is inclusive and non-discriminatory?

Dress codes have undergone many iterations over the years, and what we have considered to be ‘work appropriate’ has become nebulous and ever-shifting.

For the record – this is a good thing! The dress code conversation has evolved as a result of difficult conversations and activism in regards to how dress codes have intersected with the lived experience of race, class, religion, disability, gender identity, and gender expression. Dress codes have historically required conformity to a particular ‘look’. These requirements have often denigrated and punished black hairstyles, reinforced the gender binary, and required that employees (disproportionately women) look sexually ‘appealing’ to customers and clients.

Workplaces are well within their right to mandate a dress code if it serves a requirement of the job, and/or a health and safety requirement. An example? Thierry is a barista at a local coffee shop. He uses he/him pronouns and identifies as a man. Thierry loves wearing bright nail polish and uses it as a way to express his gender and creativity. However, the coffee shop has a strict no nail polish policy because it poses a health and safety risk in the food and beverage preparation. Nail polish can flake and end up in food or drink. So, management asks that Thierry no longer wear nail polish on shift.

This is an example of a dress code that serves a broader purpose. Every employee must adhere to it, regardless of their gender identity or gender expression. Now, if management only asked Thierry to remove his nail polish, while allowing his female colleagues to continue to wear it, that would be a problem.

This is because the application of that dress code along gendered lines serves no job related purpose, and in fact, discriminates against Thierry on the basis of his gender expression.

Let’s take another example. Sonny is a hostess at a local restaurant. Sonny is non-binary, and their gender expression changes day-to-day. One day, Sonny comes in wearing loafers and slacks – something that their male co-workers wear every day. Their manager pulls them aside and says that tomorrow, Sonny must wear heels and a skirt of a certain length. Sonny tries to explain that their not comfortable with that dress code, and asks to wear the clothing worn by the male servers and bartenders. Sonny’s manager says this does not align with the dress code for servers.

This is a really common issue in the restaurant and bar industry. There is an expectation that different genders will adhere to stereotypically gendered expressions and dress. But, the mandate that hostesses and women wear high heels doesn’t serve any sort of true purpose. If it did, the male servers and bartenders would be wearing the same thing as their female colleagues. Additionally, there is an underlying assumption that hostesses are always women, and that women should express their gender a certain way.

Sonny is not a woman – they are non-binary, and additionally, express their gender in a way that doesn’t align with this dress code. Requiring Sonny to dress this way is preventing them from dressing in a way that matches their gender expression – something that the workplace must (and easily can) accommodate in this case. Sonny also may rightfully feel that their manager is misgendering them.

Requiring that ‘men’ and ‘women’ adhere to different dress codes not only reinforces a gender binary, but it also erases non-binary and gender non-conforming folks who don’t fit as easily into those categories. It can also result in women having to shoulder a disproportionate (and more expensive) burden – as the Ontario Human Rights Commission states, “Female employees should not be expected to meet more difficult requirements than male employees, and they should not be expected to dress in a sexualized way to attract clients.”

So what can employers do to ensure their dress codes are inclusive?

  • Don’t divide dress code along gendered lines - rarely is there a job-related reason to do so

  • Allow for a wide array of acceptable options that are inclusive and available as options to all staff, regardless of not only gender identity and gender expression, but also sex, race, disability, and religious faith

  • Ask for feedback on the dress code from your staff – you may be surprised by the feedback you receive

  • Interrogate your own bias on what purpose dress codes serve. Are you harboring some biases when it comes to respectability and clothing? How can you push yourself to have difficult conversations about dress codes at work?

And remember, what someone wears is not an invitation in any context – inside the workplace or outside it. Clothing is not consent.

Have you ever felt uncomfortable with a workplace dress code you were asked to follow?

  • Yes - I didn't feel like the dress code was appropriate/fair

  • No - I've always felt comfortable with dress codes at work

  • I've never really thought about dress codes till today

More information and resources here:

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