We need gender neutral dress codes in the workplace. If you don't yet agree with that statement, look no farther than a 55-page presentation given to women executives at Ernst & Young in a June 2018 training.
The presentation, which made headlines last month when an offended participant leaked it to the Huffington Post, reinforced gendered stereotypes of how women should dress and present themselves at work. Some highlights, which are actually lowlights in terms of equality in the workforce:
- A list of "appearance blunders" for women to avoid, including no-nos like "too-short skirts," "plunging neckline[s]," "bottle blonde," "flashy jewelry"
- Outfit and grooming suggestions to "minimize distractions from your skills [sic] set" like "good haircut, manicured nails, and well-cut attire"
- Advice on how to dress: "don't flaunt your body — sexuality scrambles the mind"
The women, there to invest in their professional development, were not learning how to be better leaders or combat sexist stereotypes at work, but instead were being lectured to about what to wear and how to groom themselves.
While the presentation wasn't the official E&Y dress code, it does highlight bias and assumptions made around gender that women have to manage. And this particular training focused only on the male-female binary. Employees who identify as transgender or nonbinary might feel even more burdened by dress code policies based on gender.
Imagine how much more productive all employees, regardless of gender, could be, if they weren't focused on avoiding dress code policing.
Traditional gender-based dress codes can also discriminate on the basis of race. Many grooming guidelines for women, including rules on acceptable haircuts, are extra burdens for black employees, particularly those who want to wear their hair in natural styles. In 2010, Chastity Jones got a job offer to be a customer service representative from Catastrophe Management Solutions—but the offer was contingent on her cutting off her locs. When she refused, the company took back the job offer, and when she sued, with the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she lost her case in 2013 and again in 2016, when her appeal was dismissed.
And beyond forcing women of color to maintain their hair in a way that's deemed acceptable, gender-based dress codes can also discriminate against people of certain religions. Employees whose faiths keep them from cutting their hair or necessitate that they wear certain clothing (including head coverings) shouldn't be forced to adapt their beliefs to what their employer deems professionally appropriate for a woman at work.
The possibility for gender-, race-, and faith-based discrimination posed by prescriptive employee dress codes has led the Human Rights Campaign to recommend that "if an employer has a dress code, it should modify it to avoid gender stereotypes and enforce it consistently. Requiring men to wear suits and women to wear skirts or dresses, while legal, is based on gender stereotypes. Alternatively, codes that require attire professionally appropriate to the office or unit in which an employee works are gender-neutral."
Okay, So Gender Neutral Dress Codes Sound Good. What Do They Look Like?
In their simplest (which, in my opinion, also means best) form, gender neutral dress codes at the workplace can take the form of General Motors' dress policy. When now-CEO Mary Barra was VP of global human resources for the automotive giant, she replaced their 10-page dress code with two words: "Dress appropriately."
In the article linked above, the author explains why Barra's dress code works so well: "She avoid[ed] assumptions, instead choosing to trust her employees' judgment," which in turn "empower[ed] all employees" and was "particularly impactful for women."
For workplaces that need more specificity about what employees can wear, HR should follow in the footsteps of other institutions that have successfully adopted gender-neutral dress codes. Namely, high schools.
After a wave of protests, social media outrage, and thoughtful advocating, several schools have revamped their dress codes, which tended to put undue burden on female students. New guidelines apply to all students, regardless of their gender. Instead of specifying the length of skirts versus shorts or the width of a cami strap versus a tank top, a Virginia high school's new gender-neutral dress code simply defines what must be covered: "clothing [must] cover areas from one armpit across to the other armpit, down to approximately three to four inches in length to the upper thighs."
What does that look like at work?
Spell out specific dress code rules by article of clothing, not by gender, use non-gendered pronouns, and make sure that any grooming guidelines could apply to anyone. Don't place burdens on anyone based on their gender, and try to empower employees to manage their own appearance in accordance with professional expectations.
For business casual workplaces, try this, adapted from Forbes: "Employees should dress in business casual attire, which could include casual slacks and skirts, collared shirts, blouses, or sweaters. Inappropriate attire includes sportswear, jeans, and unkempt clothing, among other options. Please exercise good judgment."
For business formal workplaces, you could use the following: "Traditional business attire, including dresses, suits, and pantsuits, is required for external meetings with clients or prospects. Employees should use discretion on other occasions and are expected to demonstrate good judgment."
And for casual workplaces, which are on the rise—according to Indeed, 50% of companies allow employees to dress casually every day, as of 2019—go with something simple, like this, adapted from The Balance: "Dress comfortably for work, but please do not wear anything that could offend your coworkers or make them feel uncomfortable. That includes clothing with profanity, hate speech, or exclusionary language. Your clothing, while casual, should show common sense and professionalism."
No matter the level of formality your dress code needs to define, make sure you're thinking from the perspective of all employees—current as well as future—and creating an environment where they can thrive.
Want to share these tips with your company? Show them this handy one-page guide on creating a gender neutral dress code!