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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   Is this gender discrimination or a holdover from earlier, outdated values about women and appropriate dress?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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Lois Elaine Parkes - Reply

In addition to the points raised in the article, many of these dress codes require employees to spend unnecessary amounts to adhere to them, which is also unfair, especially in low wage jobs. There is little consideration given to health concerns and comfort, example insistence on high heeled shoes

Annette Rattigan-Leo - Reply

Work place dress codes have evolved over the years especially for women. It must be noted that some organizations have sought to maintain control by issuing uniforms, which are not only guided by colour but also by style. This guarantees the elimination of "unacceptable" dressing. It also removes the financial burden from the employee of maintaining a work wardrobe. Sleeveless dresses for women in the work place is an issue which requires further delving into.

Dasmine Kennedy - Reply

 Maybe, I will be considered as being old fashioned but I donot consider the No sleeveless policy in the workplace discriminatory or outdated values about women and appropriate dress.

Sleeveless has it place and there are vaiations to sleeveless. Sleeveless it not for a woman withbulging armpit. we tend to model Michelle Obama a lot but we need to examine the way her sleeveless fits. There is nothing revealing.  I find it quite puzzling with the way some  women tend to be pre-occupied with revealing sacred parts of their bodies in public places. Why should I be looking under someone's armpit and they are not at the beach or in a casual setting or worst yet why should I be allowed to see the borders of a woman's underwear based on the closefittedness of her dress. I think we need to take stock. 

Carole Houlihan - Reply

Thanks for the interesting comments. I think we would all agree that respectful attire is  required in  all workplaces. A few months ago, I wrote about changing  dress cultures (especially with young people is more informal, high tech companies). 

Perhaps one approach is  for senior management/HR to  make a statement about dress "professional" attire...and then to deal with  individual "transgressions" on a one-on -one basis.  Most employees look around  the office and take their cues from how others are dressed. 

Diana Swan-Lawrence - Reply


 Thanks for raising the dress code issue Carole.

The Public Service Department of the Ministry of the Presidency in Guyana is presently engaged in a commission of enqiury into the Public Service dress code. Recently a young mother was denied entry to her child's school  becasue she was not 'appropriately dressed'. Allegedly she left the school in a rage and 'hit down' a young scout who was visiting from another country. This was really unfortunate and should never have happened.

I was turned away several times from government agencies because I wore dresses with capped sleeves, these are sleeves that a little shorter than the normal short sleeves. I was offered a dirty 'throw over' if I wanted to conduct business. Even the First Lady of Guyana complained that she was subjected to this indignity by a particular government agency.

I am convinced that when a society polices female bodies instead of addressing men's  behaviours genderbased violence is inevitable and the victims are made to feel responsible.

When dress codes are less about protecting people and more about protecting strict social norms and hierarchies that refuse to embrace differences and diversities, the discourse becomes very necessary and action must be taken to right this wrong.



Penny L - Reply

The issue of Dress Codes is very controversial and continues to be a hotly debated topic, in both public and private sectors. The business attire policies at an organisation where I worked were  quite straightforward, current and in my opinion non-discriminatory. Non- discriminatory in the sense that the policies sought to  ensure that both internal and external clients, male/female, working or conducting business with the organisation were suitably attired.

The  policy for external customers included the usual elements such as non-revealing clothing, no baring of midriffs or arms, no "hair rollers", and generally was geared to uphold  the corporate image of the particular entity. The power to deny/grant customer access to the organisation was vested in the  security officers.  

As it relates to the business attire pollicy for employees- this was included in the employee orientation package, which employees were required to read and sign, after the orientation process. Again the employee Business attire policy was inclusive of general elements with regard to dress, hair and type of jewelry, again to ensure that a professional image was maintained at the organisation. The power to enforce the policy was with Unit/Line Managers or HR.  

It is my view that the policies were quite effective at maintaining the professional image of the organisation, and I also believe that clear guidelines have to be set as it relates to Dress Codes.  

Any adjustments to the policies would need careful consideration , given the variations in demographics, body types and the list goes on.

Just my thoughts on this contentious issue.