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Handbags and Gladrags: The objectification of female workers through dress codes

Employment law solicitor Mandy Bhattal discusses workplace dress codes and asks at what point do dress code rules become discriminatory?

Woman in high heels
Mandy is a solicitor working with Kiran Daurka and Chris Benson in the employment and discrimination department.
Dress codes for employees are often imposed when in the workplace, but there has been an increase in reporting of employer practices that set down rules that go beyond the usual ‘business smart’ standard. At what point do these dress code rules become discriminatory?

Archaic dress code policies, encouraging the sexual objectification of female workers amongst other things, had been a relatively silent issue until a recent spate of complaints became public.  Starting with a temp receptionist who was sent home for failing to comply with the agency dress code requiring her to wear high heels of between two and four inches, the issue has become a wider debate.   

Another employer who has been put under the spotlight over its potentially sexist dress codes is The Dorchester Hotel which set out a list of grooming rules for female staff. These rules included asking female members of staff to ensure they do not turn up to work with oily skin, bad breath or over-the-top makeup; and encourage the female employees to shave their legs, avoid body odour and ensure their fingernails are manicured. You will note that this list was reportedly only distributed to female employees, thus singling them out based on their gender.

At the time of writing, a similar list for male employees has not been forthcoming. Whilst there is no necessity for an employer to have exactly the same rules for male and female employees, they do need to be sufficiently similar.

The lack of a sufficiently similar grooming policy for male employees can causes a whole host of problems. The Equality Act 2010 states that an employer’s policy must not be discriminatory in respect of the protected characteristics, which includes sex. In the Dorchester Hotel example, the mere fact that the rules relate only to female employees is tantamount to direct sex discrimination, which cannot be justified. 

It is not unheard of for employees to be dismissed due to failing to comply with a dress code, but dress codes or grooming policies applicable to all staff should be reasonable and proportionate. Employers who insist upon rigorous dress codes that arguably extend beyond necessity or fairness could face claims for direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal, if female employees are able to show that they are at a detriment to their male colleagues. This could easily be the case if the employer has not extended such demanding codes to the male employees. 

Further to sex discrimination, there is also the fact that some of the ‘rules’ imposed upon female staff may be unacceptable to employees of certain religions. For a number of religions, removal of hair is not allowed. One of the protected characteristics cited in The Equality Act is religion or belief. Therefore such policies could also give rise to discrimination claims on this ground. And, of course, some forms of disability may make certain dress codes more difficult to comply with, potentially giving rise to disability discrimination concerns.  

Beyond the legal arguments, certain requirements imposed upon female employees are clearly an objectification of women. It is known that certain airlines require their female air stewards to wear specific shades of lipstick, which can only be seen as sexualising female staff. Why would there be a need for a female employee to shave her legs, but no such requirement be extended to her male colleagues? Whether or not a woman shaves her legs, wears heels or a waxes her facial hair does not make her less able to execute her role to a high standard. It is important to ask the underlying question as to the reason why that dress code is being applied; whether it is being applied to men also; and, if not, whether it is reasonable and appropriate.  

Grooming rules and dress codes specific for women also put them at a further disadvantage as such grooming rituals can be expensive and some industries applying these rules may employ younger staff on comparatively lower wages. This could mean that women are technically earning less than their male colleagues, as they have to adhere to the grooming standards imposed upon them by their employers.

A debate is due to take place in Westminster Hall today (Monday 6th March) on workplace dress codes, and we hope that this encourages the government to take steps to introduce clear guidance for employers on this issue. 

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