Amidst a seemingly endless array of hard-to-swallow American political news this week, a Trump staffer came forward detailing his employee dress code and most notably, revealing that he expected female staff to ‘Dress like a woman’. This frustrating revelation was met with significant outcry culminating in the creation of #DressLikeAWoman, a campaign that has encouraged the sharing of images of powerful women dressed in powerful ways. Women featured included US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her robes, and Anousheh Ansari, the world’s first Muslim woman in space, in her spacesuit.
Now, given the current news climate, it would be very easy to write off this incident as another destructive, discriminatory throwback on the part of Trump to times and attitudes long gone. However, the reality is that this is in no way a standalone incident; harmful, gender-specific corporate dress codes continue to be pervasive in workplaces worldwide. These standards reinforce a rigid binary of gender in a way that has very real negative effects on women and is disproportionately more harmful to gender-queer people, women with disabilities, older women and socioeconomically disadvantaged women, thus reinforcing existing structures of societal privilege. In fact, only in the past couple of weeks the UK House of Commons have released a report entitled ‘High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes’, which highlights the widespread problems inherent to the implementation of gender-specific dress codes.
One finding suggests there is a significant opportunity cost associated with being a professional woman and adhering to workplace standards, both written and assumed, in terms of both time and money. This has been quantified in numerous ways; one such analysis by Elon University found that women who worked full-time spent an extra 15 minutes per day on grooming compared to their male counterparts. To put this into perspective, that is the equivalent of more than 90 hours per year of additional time. Similarly, the financial cost is strikingly large – one Californian analysis suggests that an average of three percent of a woman’s income is spent on grooming costs – not to mention the additional cost of ‘professional’ workwear’. In addition to placing women at a disadvantage, these effects are notably significant for socioeconomically disadvantaged women, whose time and money resources are already more limited, and hence can act as a means of suppressing these peoples’ workplace participation and success.
These costs are accompanied by a demonstrated negative impact imposed by gendered dress codes on women’s physical and mental health. In the case of the report on high heels, the wearing of heels for extended periods on a regular basis, especially when performing active work, for women with disabilities and older women, was linked to short-term chronic pain and health issues. Such ongoing problems were also linked to reduced job performance due to reduced concentration and reduced mobility, amongst other factors.
Furthermore, the reinforcement of stereotyped images of women’s appearances and sexualisation of female bodies often reinforced by such codes, such as in requirements to wear skirts or cover the upper arms. This was linked to reduced psychological wellbeing, decreased comfort in the workplace and the promotion of a culture in which sexual harassment by both colleagues and customers was deemed acceptable. Moreover, the solidification of such a rigid gender binary could have particularly destructive ramifications for LGBTQI+ individuals, in exacerbating mental ill-health, particularly in relation to feelings of gender dysmorphia, and contributing a culture requiring them to constantly self-edit their identity and its manifestations to gain acceptance. The psychological burden this represents contributes to a range of structures that already limit the ability of LGBTQI+ people to contribute and participate fully and comfortably in the workplace.
More broadly, these limitations on the comfort and performance of women-identifying individuals in the workplace are built into a far more complex patriarchal structure that limits women’s workforce participation and impedes success. The valuing of a woman’s appearance beyond her capabilities and expectation that maintaining an impeccable standard of grooming is a prerequisite for women’s career success (but not necessarily for the success of men) prevents women from attaining the levels of workforce fulfilment they deserve. All of this robs society of the valuable contribution these very women could make, had these structural issues not existed. It is this connection to the overarching societal phenomena that makes the continued struggle against such discriminatory dress codes, on the level of the individual, organisation and the government, crucial.