There has been a great deal of publicity given to sexist dress codes over the last few months. Generally the debate concerns dress codes for women, which are claimed to be sexist. Nearly always, the much more widespread discrimination against men is either ignored or added in passing as an afterthought. We need to recognise that dress codes are sexist whether it is women who are being disadvantaged or men.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that the world was coming to an end when, last June, the Speaker of the UK House of Commons announced that ties were no longer considered compulsory business wear for male Members of Parliament. This piece of sartorial common sense featured prominently in the media, including, sometimes, prime time television, around the world. Men still have to wear jackets, of course, with no similar obligation on their female colleagues, but, nevertheless, “one small step for man”. In a similar vein, in the US, Congresswomen have complained that their “sexist, uncomfortable” dress code was unfair because they have to wear dresses with sleeves. This dress code led to Congress being likened to “The Handmaid’s Tale”. While making much of the discomfort suffered in hot weather by women in dresses with sleeves, little mention is made of the fact that men in Congress are forced to wear not only shirts (the equivalent of dresses with sleeves), but also jackets and ties.
In short, while there is much debate about the evils of forcing women to dress in a gender-stereotyped way, the fact that workplace dress codes so often force men to go to work in school uniform, looking like suited clones, is overlooked. Women who try to overturn sexist dress codes are praised in the media, while men are expected to “man-up” and live up to the 1950s-based sartorial expectations of others. Forcing men to wear jackets and ties is often defended as “maintaining standards”, while forcing women to dress in any sort of gender-stereotyped way is denounced as “sexist”!
Do we really still have sexist dress codes?
Are dress codes sexist? Yes, of course, many dress codes are sexist, but in the majority of cases it is men, not women, who are disadvantaged.
Just to be clear, I agree that sexist dress codes that force women to wear high heels or makeup are wrong. However, work dress codes that force men to sweat in jackets and ties in the summer, or deprive men of the same right to self-expression enjoyed by women, are equally sexist and reprehensible.
Why is it so difficult to bring an end to sexist dress codes?
What it boils down to is that there are too many people in positions of authority who feel they have a right to impose their own gender-stereotyped views on others. Their ability to do this must be curtailed if we ever want to achieve genuine equality in the workplace. If we can’t achieve equality in the relatively simple matter of workplace dress, how on earth can we hope to solve more complex equality issues?
What I really don’t understand is why it seems to be so difficult to comprehend that the male and female dress code issues are two sides of the same coin. Whether you are talking about high heels or ties, neither serves any purpose other than forcing a man or a woman to comply with someone else’s gender stereotyped, sexist view of how a man or woman should look. The solutions are not mutually exclusive and it would be so easy to solve both at the same time. It does not require men and women to dress identically, all it needs is for employers to implement workplace dress codes that allow men and women the same freedom of choice, comfort and self-expression. If high heels are in any way important to doing the job, men should also have to wear them. If ties in some way contribute to the performance of the employee, then women should have to wear them too.
My little blog will be an attempt to redress the balance and a shine a little light on the fact that, very often, men’s dress codes are sexist, being more uniform, more formal and less comfortable than those applied to their female colleagues. This is not in any way a criticism of women and what they wear, but rather an attempt to highlight the fact that men are often treated like children and are not afforded the same level of respect given to women when it comes to the adult decision of what to wear for work.
I would like to think that employers in all sectors could behave in an adult manner and bring their employees into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the law in the UK specifically permits different dress codes for men and women, provided the rules are suitably gender-stereotyped (the actual synonymous phrase used is “conventional appearance”). I suspect that this is also the case in very many other countries. We really need laws that say that dress codes must, by default, be the same for both sexes unless their is a cast iron case for gender differences. The only real obstacle to this is the widespread obsession with keeping men in jackets and ties.
Anyway, I hope you take the time to look at some of the posts. You may or may not agree, but you have the right to express your opinion, just as you should have the right to express yourself comfortably by what you wear. Polite comments are welcome on any of the posts, whether in support or otherwise. The object is a balanced discussion.