Sexism and Fashion in the Workplace: What You Should Know

Anna Johansson

November 23, 2019

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Most modern workplaces have a dress code, even if it's informal or relaxed. However, these dress codes often treat men and women very differently, and in practice, women are judged more frequently and more harshly for what they choose to wear in the workplace. It's a subtle, yet important manifestation of sexism, and the more aware you are of it, the more you can do about it.

The Decline of Gender-Based Language in Official Dress Codes

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that employees are protected against discrimination because of their gender, but that hasn't stopped old-fashioned and powerful companies from trying to create and enforce different dress code policies for their men and women. Thankfully, many businesses today are striving to create dress codes with more gender-neutral terms, and with conditions that apply to men and women equally. For example, they might create a dress code around a term like "business casual," with a long list of descriptors of clothing that could fit this tier of formality.

Whether they're doing this to eliminate sexism or just to avoid the potential of a lawsuit, it's still a positive step forward. However, it hasn't completely changed the way women are treated for the way they dress.

Subtle Expectations and the Burden of Women in the Workplace

Even if the dress code doesn't formally state it, you may find that your workplace has subtly stricter standards for women. For example, in many workplaces, it's expected that men cannot wear makeup and that women "should" wear makeup. If you show up to work without makeup, you may not face formal disciplinary action, but you may get a vague or subtle suggestion from your boss that you should put in the extra effort, or you may get sideways glances from your coworkers.

The same is true for many elements of a woman's typical workplace attire. Men are generally not pressured to do much with their hair, short of keeping it cut and combed, while women are pressured to put more time and effort into their hair. And according to Love & Promise Jewelers Chicago, even the type of jewelry you wear (or don't wear) could be heavily scrutinized; if your choice in accessories are too flashy, or if you don't put enough effort in your selections, you could face unfair treatment because of it.

Legally speaking, if you face any kind of discriminatory treatment on the basis of your gender, you could have a case. That means if you feel pressured or expected to spend an hour longer getting ready in the morning, when compared to your male colleagues, your workplace could be discriminatory.

Understanding When There's a Problem

That said, determining when there's an actual problem can be difficult. The sexist actions and attitudes of your coworkers and bosses may not be enough to constitute a legal case, but may be enough to make your life difficult. And in some cases, there isn't much of a problem at all; for example, you might feel internal pressure to wear makeup and comply with a certain look for women, but your employers may not care at all.

If you want to determine whether there's a problem, your best paths forward are to talk and experiment. Speak with your coworkers, both male and female, about how they feel pressured to dress, and how much time they spend getting ready in the morning. If you notice a big discrepancy between your male and female colleagues, that could be a sign that something is wrong.

Then, experiment with your look. Try coming to work in dress that technically complies with the dress code, but deviates from the "typical" expectations of women. How do your bosses react? How do your coworkers react? Document these reactions if you can, and consider whether you feel your job would be in jeopardy if you continued to deviate.

Taking Action

Let's say you believe your workplace is sexist, or is practicing a sexist dress code policy. You have a few options to move forward. If the offenses are egregious, or if you feel your job is in legitimate danger because of a sexist dress code standard, it may be best to speak with a lawyer about the possibility of a workplace discrimination case. These types of cases can be hard to fight, but a lawyer will be able to help you determine your chances.

If the sexism manifesting is subtler, or if your lawyer isn't sure you have a case, talk to someone you trust, or someone in HR, about your perceptions. Fighting from the inside, you may be able to push the company to create and enforce fairer standards for both sexes and all genders.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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