Workplace dress codes: Do women have an easier time?

Workplace dress codes vary wildly these days. Those who work in more relaxed and casually dressed industries, such as the media, can sometimes forget that in professions like law or finance, employees are expected to wear suits to work every day. In these more traditional professions, a man is usually expected to wear a suit and tie; women may well be expected to wear ladies’ suits, or something similarly formal, like a tailored dress. Is it fair that in these workplaces women have more clothing options than men, who must wear the same thing day in and day out?

The idea that having more clothing options makes dressing for work easier for women is plainly untrue. In fact, despite – or perhaps because of – women’s many options, dressing for work is even harder. It could be argued that the simplicity of a man’s suit eliminates the opportunity for men to make fashion faux pas in the workplace; in addition to this, there are other factors that make it harder for women to dress for work.

For example, professional style advisor Professor Anna Akbari from New York University has advised young women working as temps or interns to wear skirt suits or dresses rather than trouser suits because “they are more appealing to men”. She also advises that women attending interviews for these kinds of roles should wear skirts, as the interviewer is likely to be a man and will respond favourably.

The message here (and one that's likely to infuriate feminists) is that a woman’s priority when considering workplace dress should be how attractive she is, rather than how professional she may appear, or how comfortable she may be when actually performing her job. By contrast, when a man wears a suit to work, he doesn't do so because he wishes to be sexually attractive; it's merely a social convention. And after all, men are more likely to be in charge of these sartorial conventions – no woman is forcing a man to wear suits and nothing but suits to work.

Furthermore, women have other gender-related worries to contend with at work. This article in the New York Times details the experience of one woman who filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm where she worked in the usually progressive state of California. Add to these kinds of issues the revelation made by the Daily Mail that men prefer women to wear make-up at all times, and it can hardly be argued that women have an easier time when it comes to dressing for work.

On the positive side, for industries like fashion, media and retail, dress codes are generally relaxed for everyone, which removes the issue of dictating how an employee should dress, whether that be commanding men to wear suits or suggesting that women dress in an ‘attractive’ manner. Perhaps if more professions adopted a more lenient way of dressing – maybe stipulating a certain level of formality without dictating exactly what that formality should consist of – it would go some way towards relieving the concerns of both men and women.

** photo credit: tommy ton of **