Are dress codes sexist?

A well written and gender balanced dress code can set a high standard of dress for both men and women, but can you insist on the wearing of tights and make-up? Or heels?  By Jackie O’Fee.

I recently read an article written by a transgender female who had transitioned from male to female at age 28, and as such had dressed as both a man and a woman in their working life. It was an interesting and insightful piece, as not many of us know first-hand how it is to dress as our opposite gender in our workplace.

In her article Autumn Trafficante raised the perceived double standards in business dress for men and women and shared that much of the business dress requirements for women were unspoken or unwritten, but keenly felt. 

She said that as a man she would basically grab whatever was clean without giving too much thought, would often not do his hair, was possibly quite scruffy and unpolished but it was never commented on. Yet, as a woman she found it incredibly surprising when friends and co-workers began commenting on her clothing, specifically whether or not what she was wearing would be considered inappropriate. 

“Never once, in my 28 years as a man, had anyone ever suggested such a thing, yet, now, as a woman, I was supposed to modify my appearance to meet some standard that was as elusive as it was vague?”  

You will have no doubt read the story of Nicola Thorp, a temp who was sent home without pay from a job on reception in the UK in 2015 for choosing a flat shoe rather than a heel between 2-4 inches. 

Thorp then went on to start a petition stating that “no organisation should be able to require women to wear high heels” that garnered more than 150,000 signatures and ended up being heard in Parliamentary debates.  There were no changes made to British law with regard to dress codes as it was felt that there were enough measures already in place to prevent discriminatory behaviour. 

The UK Government Equalities Office stated that it is acceptable to ask women to wear heels as long as the men in the organisation are held to the same high standard of dress.   

I recently worked with a firm which was implementing a new dress code. After a presentation to the team as a group, I then went on to have one-to-one sessions with their team members about their dress. 

These sessions were voluntary and it was noted that the most vocal opponents of the dress code didn’t take up the opportunity to talk with me. Many of these opponents took the trouble on the days I was there to deliberately dress down as a form of protest and among those were, most notably, the female opponents. 

So yes, dress codes can be polarising, but this also has me thinking – are dress codes sexist?  

A well written and gender balanced dress code can set a high standard of dress for both men and women, but can you insist on the wearing of tights and make-up? Or heels?

In New Zealand you require certain standards of dress and can specify the wearing of make-up (or conversely, not too much make-up). To be honest, I’ve personally not come across any written dress codes that require heels, although many allude to them by suggesting “classic court shoes”. 

Wearing tights is often suggested but not mandatory and even airlines are rumoured to be rethinking the mandatory requirement of wearing make-up for female flight attendants. 

The challenge that faces many employers is quite simply the range and choice that is available in women’s workwear. 

Men typically have it quite easy: a pair of trousers and shirt cover most workplaces, with varying degrees of dressy/casual acceptability. 

For women, if you choose a skirt there are a myriad of options in length and fit, while equally, a ‘top’ runs the gamut of strappy numbers to full-sleeve polo necks. 

So, specifying ‘no bare shoulders’ along with ‘no shoestring straps’ can ring-fence against anything more suited to a trip to the beach than the boardroom. 

One thing I have learned though – you cannot rely on the dress standards of your current employees to lift the game of any newcomers, you do need to be explicit in your standards. 


Jackie O’Fee is the owner of personal style consultancy Signature Style. She works with both individuals and organisations.  See     

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