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May 24, 2016 | 5 min read

She Wore WHAT to Work?: Sexism and Dress Code Discrimination Go Hand in Hand

Thought Leadership

For female workers, gender discrimination can start as soon as they get dressed for the day. But increasingly, women are speaking out against dress code discrimination.

It’s a fact that women need to put in a whole lot more effort than men in order to be considered “well-groomed” — over a lifetime, women spend an average of 3,276 hours putting on makeup and dressing, compared to 1,092 for men.

Given many jobs’ requirement for a “professional” appearance, women can be forced to invest more money and time than their male counterparts for no extra reward. If that wasn’t enough, some parts of a well-presented woman’s wardrobe can be downright damaging to health. Despite this, schools and businesses still put pressure on women to adhere to stricter dress codes, often resorting to humiliating or intimidating tactics to enforce them.

Killer Heels

Most industries have legal guidelines preventing employers from forcing workers to perform under unsafe conditions. However many women find that high heeled shoes, while capable of inflicting severe damage, seem to fall under the loophole of “professional dress”. When Nicola Thorp turned up for a temporary work assignment in flats, management demanded she buy heels to wear for her shift. When she refused, she was sent home without pay.

Thorp protested her unfair dismissal by starting a petition entitled “Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work,”. Only four days later the petition had gained 136,194 signatures — well past the 100k threshold forcing a debate in UK Parliament.

While Thorp was able to walk away from a job which required her to sacrifice her health, an unnamed server at Canadian chain Joey’s Restaurant didn’t have that option. Her friend Nicola Gavins posted a horrifying image of the worker’s bleeding feet to Facebook. Gavins reports that the shift manager reprimanded the injured employee for changing to flats, and informed her that heels would be required for her next shift.

Gavins’ Facebook post additionally pointed out that Joey’s require female staff to pay $30 for a uniform, and require new staff to work unpaid training shifts, which is illegal in Canada.

Joey’s officially denied their uniform policy requires employees to wear unsafe footwear, stating:

There is no minimum height when it comes to our shoe policy. Shoes range from black dress flats, wedges and heels. For those employees wearing heels, we require the heel height to be no higher than 2.5’.

However, the continued backlash proves pictures speak louder than words.

Taking It Public

Dress code discrimination often happens behind closed doors, where it’s difficult for employees to get evidence of unfair actions. However it’s hard to ignore the problem when it happens on live TV. Meteorologist Liberté Chan in the middle of giving the weekend weather forecast on LA TV channel KTLA, when a colleague handed her a modest grey cardigan, explaining that “We get a lot of emails.”

#Sweatergate soon began trending on Twitter, prompting many to share their opinions on the incident, some baffled at the idea of Chan’s outfit meriting complaints, others pointing out wider implications.

Chan later revealed the incident had been a joke by her colleagues who had been amused by complaints from the public about her attire, explaining in a blog post:

“For the record, I was not ordered by KTLA to put on the sweater. I was simply playing along with my co-anchor’s joke, and if you’ve ever watched the morning show, you know we poke fun at each other all the time.”

The KTLA team may have just been messing around, but #Sweatergate struck a genuine chord, especially coming on the heels of Thorp and Gavin’s campaigns attracting viral attention.

Start Them Young

Dress code sexism is a hot topic — and not just for adults. Since K-12 education is largely geared towards preparing us for the workplace, it makes sense that many schools take care to teach girls that when choosing an outfit, giving the right impression matters a whole lot more than frivolous things like personal preference or comfort.

But plenty of teens — both boys and girls — are rebelling against dress codes which unfairly penalize female students, taking to social media to shame schools into updating their ideas.

Dress code discrimination is a particularly well entrenched part of gender inequality, both blatant in the obviously unfair standards applied, and insidious in the increased financial burden and time commitment invisibly placed on women.

With more and more people speaking out about this unfairness, it seems more than possible that in the future, dressing for success won’t take women three times as long to achieve.

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