Fashions may change quickly, but when it comes to women, sexism and racism continue to pervade workplace dress codes – regardless of the fact that women play significant leadership roles across all industries.
Clothing and hairstyle choices have come to stand-in as a more acceptable form of sexual harassment in the workplace, discrimination coded as professionalism, a fact that we all need to be cognizant of. From old myths surrounding engagement rings to mandatory high heels, workplace sexism today doesn’t look much different than it did thirty years ago.
Interviews And Engagement Rings
The potential of an engagement ring to inhibit career advancement is one of the oldest examples of workplace sexism; so old that women today are regularly known to remove their rings before job interviews.
In particular, many women believe that if they show up with a ring on, they’ll be seen as not needing the job and not committed because their husband will support them down the road. Therefore, the assumption is they’ll be passed over for the job for someone seen as more reliable.
This perception is especially powerful among women who have expensive rings, whose fiancées have bought into the old purchasing system that says a ring should cost three months’ salary. Even if the ring is actually an heirloom or an unusual sacrifice for a couple, it can impact a woman’s employment outlook.
Be Proper, But Not Boring
So many of the dress code standards forced on women today hinge on the idea that a woman should be proper – but not boring; in essence, it’s about objectification. For example, women are expected to wear clothing that isn’t “distracting,” which makes the workplace sound like a middle school where shoulders are a forbidden temptation. Yes, women should be expected to dress in a professional manner, but such expectations should align with contemporary social customs, not sexist perceptions of women’s bodies.
Similar dated and sexist perceptions leak into pre-hiring wardrobe issues as well. A recent survey of employers showed that they perceive women who wear brown to their interviews as reliable but boring, while women who wear orange as under-confident and unprofessional. We have a serious workplace problem when potential employees are judged by the color of their shirts rather than the content of their resumes – and men aren’t.
High Heels A Must
High heels are known to cause heel pain, but to be quite honest, modern women would be happy if that was the only kind of pain they caused. Recently, several high profile companies have been in the news for requiring female employees wear heels to work. Petitions objecting to the rule, at least in the UK, have failed on the premise that the requirement isn’t sufficient to prove gender discrimination.
Gender-based discrimination or not, any woman will tell you that such a dress code requirement is unreasonable and unnecessary. Heels are not necessarily more professional than flats, but they are more attractive to the male gaze.
The Demand For ‘Good’ Hair
Finally, there are some situations in which sexist appearance expectations intertwine with racism to produce particularly insidious and destructive appearance requirements – typically in the form of demands about how Black women wear their hair.
In one recent case, a woman was told that to be hired for a position, she would need to chemically treat her hair; in essence, pay to make it appear more like that of white women. Other scenarios have included workplaces that deem traditional Black hairstyles such as dreadlocks unprofessional and required staff to remove them in what amounts to explicit racist discrimination.
Though workplace equality is of nominal importance to the vast majority of people, women bear the brunt of unreasonable appearance expectations because men have historically controlled women’s bodies. It’s time for workplaces to move into the 21st century and put these anachronistic rules to rest.