The latest news out of Britain (aside from Emma Watson’s photos) deals with workplace attire–namely high-heeled shoes. Women are fighting back against dress codes that require them to wear heels, feminine clothing, or makeup on the job.
Reading this story gave me pause…and got me thinking about what it means to be a woman who works.
About 15 years ago, I was working for a non-profit organization. One of the interns I supervised came into the office dressed to the nines: stiletto heels, black cocktail dress, smoky eye makeup.
The “dress code” in our small office simply required that we dress for the occasion. Some days were spent giving tours of the neighborhood, some were spent entertaining investors, and some were spent cleaning out the storage basement, so my work wardrobe was definitely diverse.
Since I knew that day was a typical “answer the phones and work on marketing materials” kind of day, I asked the intern why she was so dressed up.
She was still in college–I had barely been out for a year–and she was also working part time for a commercial real-estate company. One that was decidedly FOR profit, I should add.
“Oh, I have to go to a business expo for *nameless real-estate company* and my boss told me I need to look hot so people will come talk to us.”
I scrunched up my face a bit, nodded, and got back to work making a brochure. But that moment stuck with me. I loved this intern. She was smart, fun to be around, and a talented graphic designer. It hurt my heart that someone was objectifying her for money, and it also hurt my heart that she seemed okay with it.
But I never spoke up. Who was I to judge how she dressed or why she did it? At least that’s how I felt at the time.
Feminism is a complex web. I tend to be the type of feminist who feels that playing on women’s sexuality is simply rewarding the patriarchy–that if I spend my dollars and time trying to look sexy, all I’ve done is perpetuated the idea that women are objects. It’s why I wear oxford shirts and cardigan sweaters to work most days.
One of my dearest friends, though, is a feminist who feels that she owns her sexuality. Her personal style reflects that with curve-hugging clothes and striking makeup. She tells me she feels stronger when she embraces her sexuality.
Another feminist friend works in a male-dominated industry. She wears power suits and 4 inch heels, saying the heels help her feel on level with her (presumably taller) male colleagues and superiors.
What it comes down to, of course, is choice. Yes, workplaces have the right to insist that their employees dress for the job. Yes, that includes requiring “professional” dress. But specific fashion choices should be left to the individual. If a woman feels stronger in heels, she should wear them. If she feels stronger in flats (me! me!) then dammit, she should be able to wear flats.
The news out of Britain regarding high heels may shock some Americans, but I can assure you there are “informal” dress codes here that require women to use their sexuality to sell something. Even the White House has come under fire for wardrobe expectations.
The courts have taken up sexism in the workplace, of course, and a major win for women was in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the accounting firm denied partnership to a female employee on the grounds that she needed to “act and dress more femininely,” and “attend a charm school.” The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employee, and she was awarded $400,000 and the partnership. But that was in 1990.
Since then, we’ve come…nowhere, really.
In fact, most federal courts in the US have upheld policies that require men and women to dress differently or groom their hair differently. Therule seems to be that as long as all employees have a dress code, then the code can look different for men than it does for women.
I am less concerned with large corporations, though, than smaller businesses that probably won’t have whistleblowers and regulations to fear. So when I read about those British offices demanding that employees wear high heels, I thought of my intern back in 2002 and her work with that small-ish commercial real-estate company.
What happened to my intern shouldn’t happen. Ever. She was young, and I regret not taking the time to explore the issue with her. She didn’t seem at all troubled by her male boss’ request for her to “look sexy,” but should a 22-year-old be expected to navigate that sea alone? She was hoping to gain permanent employment after graduation–and most certainly there were older women who’d told her to follow orders and lure in prospective investors.
Where does the responsibility lie? Should our legislators act, as some MPs are doing in Britain? Or is it up to colleagues to stand together and demand fair standards for workplace dress?
Does your workplace have separate dress expectations for men and women? Does your child’s school? Let me know what you think.