In this weeks column, Julia Rampen makes the case for a rethink of dress codes in the workplace and asks us to consider how they might exclude people from joining sectors in need of new talent.
During the summer’s heat wave, a new oppressed group of workers emerged: men. “I think you should be able to wear shorts but there is a stigma attached to it,” complained one of several workers interviewed by the Huffington Post. Articles explaining the law on wearing shorts to the office have multiplied. This year’s outcry follows protests during the unusually hot June of 2017r. Joey Barge, a call centre worker sent home for wearing shorts, returned in a fetching pink dress. Schoolboys in Exeter who wore their female classmate’s skirts in protest and declared them “quite refreshing”
Losing marks for “kinky boots”
It might be tempting for those more used to stories of sexual harassment or unequal pay to laugh at this new manifestation of workplace inequality. That would be a mistake. Indignant, sweaty, red-faced but vocal men represent an opportunity to overhaul one of the most outdated aspects of working culture: the dress code.
The vast majority of Brits believe in equality for women. Yet Nicola Thorp, a temp worker who refused to wear heels for a receptionist job, was dismissed without pay. Meanwhile, wannabe barristers instructed that they would lose marks for “kinky boots” (apparently this includes such racy items as stiletto heels and buckles), short skirts, or “inappropriate” shirts (any colour other than pale blue). Female stewardesses are generally expected to wear skirts, make-up, high heels outside the aircraft and cannot have visible tattoos, even on their feet.
Then there are the dress codes that signal class and status or have just been going on so long no one can really remember why they started. Until that hot June in 2017, male MPs had to wear ties, forcing one MP with cerebral palsy to ask for an exemption. One medical study found neckties can reduce the flow of blood to the brain. Barristers (them again) wear expensive, itchy, horsehair wigs, which may in some cases uphold the gravity of the courtroom, but in other cases intimidate vulnerable people. In London’s crowded Underground, where temperatures can rise to 40C, staff are expected to wear trousers (they are currently petitioning for a trial run at shorts). A friend of mine spent her graduation ceremony in pain after being told she could not wear trainers, despite being in recovery from knee surgery.
Often, the response of the dress code decisionmakers to examples like these is: well, most of our workers want it. And it is true that many surveys back them up. What they cannot measure, however, is how many people are turned off from the career in the first place. One in three young people have tattoos – put another way, if your workplace has a no-tats policy, you’ve effectively cut out a third of the talent before you’ve even started.
Dress code disrupters
A more honest reason for the dress code status quo is simply that it’s what makes the clients, co-workers and customers feel comfortable (or like they’ve been transported to a weird 1950s version of what sexy looks like, in the case of stewardesses). That, too, needs to be questioned. At one time, nurses wore dresses that in turn were derived from a nun’s habit. Today, they often wear scrubs, and it doesn’t seem to have affected their standing – they are the most trusted profession in the UK. Most male orchestral players are expected to perform in tail suits – a uniform derived from the style of the 18th century, and one that might have once mirrored the audience’s wardrobe, but now looks like it’s frozen in time. You might like it that way, you might not – but at a time when orchestras are struggling to bring in new audiences, the idea of a makeover doesn’t seem an unreasonable one.
Then there’s the awkward fact that the most successful industry of recent times made the dress code one of its first disruptions. Silicon Valley may be mocked for having its own “uniform” of hoodies, t-shirts and jeans, but it is one that resembles far more closely what people wear in everyday life. “I like the fact I can go out after work without changing,” one web developer at a London-based fintech startup tells me. She says a dress code would put her off a company. “It’s more… corporate.” As digitalisation remakes, the financial world, Britain’s banks, building societies and investment platforms will need people with her expertise. So long as they insist on suits at work, they will struggle to get them.
That isn’t to say that dress codes should be abolished. It is useful, at a busy train station, to catch sight of the uniformed guard. It is helpful, for new employees, to understand how to make a first impression that won’t hinder their career. It is fairest when colleagues have deeply held and possibly conflicting religious or political beliefs, to come up with a policy that can be respected by everyone. And, let’s face it, a lot of us do enjoy being part of a tribe, even if it’s one that makes us worse for wear in the summer months.
Girls Guides and the “dreaded hat”
So keep the dress code, but be ready to update it, and make sure there’s a logical reason for each bit. Here, one unlikely organisation leads the way. The Girl Guides were once known for militaristic style uniforms and, as one former Girl Guide put it, the “dreaded hat”. They faced competition from an increasingly mixed gender Scouts. So the Girl Guides overhauled the uniform to include hijabs and hoodies, and replaced traditional badges like “hostess” with ones like “craftivism”. Of course, they could have changed up the programme and stuck to an old-fashioned dress code, but would anyone have noticed?
According to a Travelodge survey of 2,000 workers conducted earlier this year, seven in ten prefer dressing casually for work because it makes them feel more comfortable.
As for those who dismiss this summer’s heatwave as an anomaly, just remind them: the world is getting hotter. Update your dress codes now – or face the wrath of a lot more sweaty, angry, long-trousered men in the future.