Women at Work: Professional Dress Codes & Gender BiasThough gender equality in the workplace is at a historical peak, with women earning 93% of what men make and a higher percentage of women holding four-year college degrees than men, complete equality still evades women. Appearance plays a large role in how women are perceived, and women are held to stricter standards than men. If a woman wears cosmetics, for example, she is perceived as more prestigious, healthier, more confident, and more likely to earn a high salary than women who do not. This simple daily beauty ritual costs women an average of $15,000 over their lifetimes and 20 minutes a day of time – over 120 hours a year.

Differing Standards

Following corporate guidelines to achieve a “well-groomed” look can be a far more time-consuming and expensive endeavor for women than for men. In the 2010 case of Lewin vs Heartland Inn, women working at the inn were encouraged to wear skirts and dresses – including shaved legs and pedicured toenails, while men needed only to wear business pants. The company criticized Lewis, who wore her hair short and preferred not to wear makeup, for her appearance, and had denied her work during busy hours for not having a “Midwestern girl look.” African Americans have also been the target of differing grooming standards, for in 2014 the U.S. Army attempted to ban natural hairstyles like twists and dreadlocks and referred to hair breaching standards as “matted and unkempt.” The Army amended their decision to allow two-strand twists only after months of pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus. For biases regarding dress code to have occurred so recently demonstrates that the issue remains problematic.

Dress Code Bias

Women experience gender bias regarding their dress codes in many professional careers. As recently as 1994 in the Northern District Federal Court, women were expressly prohibited from wearing slacks in the courtroom and were compelled to wear dresses or skirts. This forced women to concern themselves not simply with appearing businesslike, as is expected of men, but to devote equal attention to conforming to patriarchal standards of feminine appearance. Even with the standards officially changing to allow slacks, the American Bar Association reports that many female lawyers learn which judges dislike pants on women in their courtroom and follow the unspoken preference so as not to jeopardize the outcome of their trial. Whether the rules are explicitly stricter toward women’s attire or the dress code differences are implied, what is “feminine” should be irrelevant when determining professionalism.

Evolving Changes

Although the progress may seem slow, standards are gradually changing. Younger generations are active in seeking change, even at the high school level. A recent report by CNN revealed that female students are predominately punished for dress code violations in schools – standards that are less forgiving than for males – and that the reason is often cited as a fear that the female students’ attire will “distract the boys.” Being removed from class can deny female students access to education and shame them, especially since some dress code violators are required to wear T-shirts proclaiming their transgressions. In order to challenge unfair standards, female students wore shirts lettered with “I Am Not a Distraction” and male students wore dresses or bows to emphasize differences in rules regarding clothing.

Whether in school or at the workplace, men and women should not be held to different standards regarding what is appropriate. The subtle but damaging nature of professional dress code & gender bias hinders women from achieving their full potential in society. Until professionalism in women is based on neatness and competence regardless of femininity, and standards are similar between men and women, true equality between genders cannot be achieved.

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