Gender bias in your dress code?

The way we dress is a behaviour that reflects our core values and beliefs – our desire to stand out or to fit in, writes Jackie O’Fee.

Since my last column on how to write a dress code was published, a debate and associated petition has been introduced to Parliament in the United Kingdom regarding draconian and rather sexist dress codes often imposed on women in workplaces. 

This petition (that it be illegal for an employer to require a woman to wear heels at work) was bought by British woman Nicola Thorp who was sent home from her temporary role for wearing flat shoes. It should be noted that Thorp was in fact employed by an employment agency; and it was their dress code she was in breach of. 

In support, anecdotal information then emerged of women required by employers to not only wear heels rather than flats, but to also wear dresses, to wear and reapply make-up regularly or even dye their hair blonde. 

Add to that the recent edict apparently made by President Trump that he wanted the women working in his administration to “dress like women” and the past few months have made for interesting times for gender based dress in the workplace. 

So, should we state dress requirements for either the men or women in our organisations along gender lines? 

With diversity being a current buzzword (and hopefully more than that) in many organisations right now, is it time to examine what is traditionally male and female dress? 

As an example, would a man in a dress make it past the first interview stage in your organisation? Regardless of how politically correct it may be to answer in the affirmative here, I think in a more traditional workplace setting the honest answer would most likely be no. 

Why is that? Is it simply unconscious bias? Maybe, but I believe we like to see ourselves reflected in a certain way. The outliers to our way of doing things (and yes, how you dress is a way of doing things) challenge us. They are giving an insight into their personality that may differ to our own. The way we dress is a behaviour that reflects our core values and beliefs – our desire to stand out or to fit in.

Early last year I worked with a local company, talking with their staff about professional dress. One of the younger graduates was a very snappy dresser, immaculately turned out in a three-piece suit. He dominated much of the discussion as he felt the way he dressed set him apart from his co-workers, and that his rather flamboyant style was underappreciated in the organisation. 

I was curious to watch his co-workers almost roll their eyes at his continued “look at me!” assertions.

While humans are not robots and freedom of choice is a valued part of western society, at work we do need to fit in with “how we do it here”. I’m not saying we need to suppress who we really are, but there’s a place for each of us to belong. M


Jackie O’Fee is the owner of personal style consultancy Signature Style. She works with both individuals and organisations, is a popular speaker and television presenter.


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