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The Right to Bare Arms? Who Should Set Dress Codes?

April 19 2017 - by Carole Houlihan, CLP's Gender & Diversity Specialist

Two women colleagues recently sent me a newspaper article about a woman being refused entry to an office and a business meeting in Barbados because she was wearing a sleeveless dress.[1]

The security guard in the office building requested that the senior executive she was meeting bring a sweater so the offending colleague (or client) could cover herself. The senior executive who worked in the building was puzzled and commented: 

This…is commonplace across the region where women are not considered appropriately dressed if they wear sleeveless clothing to certain offices or government buildings… [With a] plethora of powerful women at all levels of business and government, we are still somehow subjected to arbitrary rules about our mode of dress and what is considered acceptable.

The newspaper article elicited strong reactions. One man commented on the article that “Men are not allowed to wear Tank-Tops, Vests or sleeveless shirts there either, so it is a fair standard.”

Do you agree?   Is this gender discrimination or a holdover from earlier, outdated values about women and appropriate dress?    

What struck me most about this article was that the standard was being enforced against a visitor to the office - a client or customer - rather than a staff person.  And given how often Michele Obama appeared in public elegantly attired in sleeveless dresses, I also found it puzzling.  

A recent case about women’s workplace attire in England received wide-spread media coverage after a woman working in financial services was “required to wear 2 to 4 inch heels”.   After 152,000 people signed a petition  supporting the office worker, who objected to the requirement, Parliament debated the issue. MPs were "shocked" by stories submitted as part of the inquiry and one, Helen Jones, commented: "We found attitudes that belonged more [to the] - I was going to say 1950s but probably the 1850s might be more accurate - than the 21st Century. [The inquiry] has exposed widespread discrimination against women, stereotypical views of what women should look like and dress like and behave like.”

In Canada, the British Columbia government recently banned workplace requirements that force women to wear high heels.  Amendments to the Workers Compensation Act will "ensure that workplace footwear is of a design, construction and material that allows the worker to safely perform their work and ensures that employers cannot require footwear contrary to this standard”.

Most would agree that workplace dress codes reflect the culture of the organization, and are evolving to reflect cultural values, and a movement towards equality.

Is your workplace dress code out of date, or does it contain requirements that are discriminatory?

How are changing values about dress and appearance being addressed in your office?


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