As business and social cultures have evolved, so have office dress codes. Up until the 1970s, starched collared shirts and suits for men and skirts and high heels for women were common nationwide. Today acceptable office attire reflects the strides we’ve made toward gender equality. But while women are just as likely as men to wear pants in the office, gender stereotyping in corporate dress codes remains.
Why is this a problem?
Dress codes that reinforce binary gender stereotypes are insensitive to LGBT or gender-nonconforming people. They also force tired norms onto cisgender people (those who identify with the sex they were born with) — for example, when policies allow women but not men to wear earrings.
While there is not yet a federal law specifically prohibiting gendered dress codes — although some states, like New York, have outlawed it — companies may be legally liable if their policies are found to discriminate against employees based on gender, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the age of widespread discussion on transgender rights, companies more than ever need to ensure their policies are inclusive and don’t reinforce outdated gender norms.
Legalities aside, if employees perceive their employer’s dress codes to have an underlying gender bias, it can negatively impact office culture and employee satisfaction, contributing to low morale and high turnover. Workplace gender discrimination has even been correlated to more instances of sexual harassment in the office.
So, how do we remove gender stereotyping from dress codes?
Several major companies, like Google, simply don’t have one. Even General Motors, a Fortune 10 company born in a much earlier era than Google, whittled its 10-page dress code down to two words: dress appropriately.
The streamlined solution allows employees to decide what is appropriate for the office, giving them autonomy, which is shown to increase employee happiness and loyalty.
But companies needn’t abolish their dress code if they feel it has value. They can simplify the policy by requiring “business-formal attire” or “business casual” and leaving the rest up to employee discretion. This light version still gives staff autonomy but pushes toward a certain criterion.
For companies that want to be more strict, there are a few rules to follow:
- Eradicate differing standards for men and women. Make close-toed shoes, collared button-downs, and khaki pants or skirts mandatory, but do not specify which gender should wear which type of clothing. However staff members identify, the open-ended options allow them to choose what they are most comfortable wearing.
- Avoid targeting a specific gender in banned items. It’s okay to prohibit sportswear, jeans, and beach sandals because those are gender-nonspecific. Rather than call out tank tops and mini- skirts, use the phrase, “Inappropriately revealing clothing is prohibited.” Or use more detailed language such as, “Shoulders must be covered at all times.”
By carefully considering word choice, companies can simultaneously maintain their dress code and make it inclusive too. Whether employers nix their policy altogether or edit out gendered language, it’s important to have a dress code that grants staff the space to choose what is most comfortable for them.
A version of this article was originally published on wforce.org.