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Unequal Burden: Dress Code Expectations on Women in the Workforce

Unequal Burden: Dress Code Expectations on Women in the Workforce

by Alex Quayle

When millennials finally began their full-time careers, the majority entered a workplace with tattoos, piercings, pink and purple hair, and more. However, taking a look back even a decade ago, this would have been completely unacceptable in the typical workplace. The opinions on dress codes across the U.S. has clearly shifted, with the idea that having tattoos and piercings simply does not diminish your skills, intelligence, professionalism, and overall value as an employee. It’s an exciting time!

However, as dress codes change throughout offices, the cultural attitude and expectations of women in the workforce hasn’t progressed much.

Many of these expectations are unspoken, so while the actual dress code doesn’t always specifically state some of these problematic issues, it’s how women are treated by higher-ups, colleagues, and clients based on their appearance.

At a time where women still struggle to be taken seriously in a professional setting, addressing these issues, seeking change, refusing to settle, and (trying to) avoid any workplace that perpetuates sexist expectations is vital.

The Issues

While dress codes become more and more relaxed, the fact of the matter is there still exists expectations for women to dress and look a certain way. For many women, they have to tip-toe a very thin line between looking too plain, lazy, and unprofessional, and too sexy, made-up, and over-the-top at work. Often, a woman is judged first on appearance, then her demeanor, and then eventually her skills and qualifications. Now, it’s important to note that this isn’t the case everywhere. In fact, more businesses are starting to become more progressive, but despite some companies’ best efforts, the cultural and societal pressures still stand firm.  

Makeup is one of the biggest pressures placed on women (both in and out of the workplace). Specifically, if you don’t wear it, you’re likely to receive some passive-aggressive comments or worse. When I asked a handful of women about their personal experiences with makeup in the workforce, a few said they felt as though they couldn’t progress within the company if they didn’t “look the part” by wearing makeup and heels every day.

Of course it’s understandable that a business wants their face of the company to look their best. Smart clothes and confidence does say a lot as a representative of a company. However, makeup truly should not be part of the equation. It’s a simple matter of choice; women shouldn’t feel obligated to wear it.

Several of the women I interviewed explained that they feel the pressure to consistently wear makeup, receiving comments such as, “you look exhausted,” “you look mommed out,” or “are you feeling okay?” on days they went makeup free. While those comments might seem harmless to some, they’re problematic for a number of reasons — the most important reason being that no one should ever really comment on a woman’s appearance, especially at work. One woman also said that waitresses weren’t allowed onto to the floor of restaurant she previously worked for to begin their shift if they weren’t “done up.” This, at its core, is workplace discrimination.

The Actions

The problem many women face when it comes to confronting this kind of discrimination is the possibility of losing their job and thus vital income. Many of these pressures are also unspoken. Oftentimes, higher-ups won’t put it in their employee handbook yet it’s a well-known “rule” and expectation. However, crummy employers will continue to discriminate against female employees unless called out. But how do you prove gender discrimination? Experts at Fiscal Tiger recommend:

  • Taking notes: Regularly write down your incidents at work, particularly who was present, who harassed you, what was said, the date/time/location of the incident, and how it affected your workflow for the day.

  • Filing a complaint with the company: Now is the time to check your employee handbook for proper protocol or speak directly to your HR department (don’t forget your notes). If your manager is the main harasser, then go to their direct manager or explain your situation to HR.

  • Filing a complaint with the EEOC: If your complaint isn’t taken seriously or you were even terminated because of your complaint, filing with the EEOC will open an investigation into the treatment you received so that you can be awarded damages (financial compensation) or simply find justice for your treatment.

Reporting discrimination sounds like a literal nightmare, and honestly, to avoid sugarcoating it, it probably will be. But that’s what many toxic employers are banking on — that no one will say anything.

Unfortunately, it isn’t illegal for employers to have unequal burdens on their employees (for example, women are required to wear makeup, while men are not). As some experts explain, “While some plaintiffs have tried to show that requiring women to wear makeup takes more time and costs more money, thus being a greater burden on women than men, these arguments have not proven successful as of the date of publication.” If it’s written in the dress code that women are required to wear makeup, you might pick a losing fight.

However, now is not the time to give up on this war. Expressing your dissatisfaction with the current dress code at work (if clearly discriminatory) in a professional and stern way to HR and management can contribute to a change. Furthermore, if possible, outright refusing to work for unfair businesses that have these rules in place, and clearly stating that their unequal dress code as the reason behind your refusal, can also foster change. It can certainly be difficult, but it is possible to find and pick a better employer and leave behind the discriminating ones, especially as more and more women enter longtime male-dominated fields like STEM and more.

In the current workforce, more and more companies are leaning towards a more relaxed dress code. Many businesses seek loyal, motivated, and determined employees. A person can be all of that and still dress in jeans and a T-shirt. While this idea is becoming widely accepted, women still seem to be getting the short end of the stick. Our clothes, our makeup, and our hair are often judged before our skills. Furthermore, the laws are often not in women’s favor when faced with discrimination and unequal burdens. However, if history has proved anything, it’s that women can evoke change. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but we can help create a better work environment for future generations.

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