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Gendered dress codes and uniforms

Written by: Sophie Warwick.

Many of us have spent some part of the last couple of years working from home. If you were among that group, what did you choose to wear? I personally was heckled by friends and family for being “fancy” when I chose to wear jeans everyday. Jeans are my sweatpants and what I feel most comfortable wearing. I didn’t ever wear a skirt or heals, not because there’s anything wrong with that, but it didn’t feel like me. With the freedom to choose how I presented myself every day at work without social or professional expectations, I felt more comfortable being myself. Showing up to work as myself, not in any kind of costume, made me better at my job.

I started my career in structural engineering consulting. In pre-pandemic days, it was not unusual to have an in-person design meeting with a client at a trendy architecture office, and then head straight to a construction meeting in a site trailer. With respect to formality for client meetings, engineering consulting was somewhere between law and tech. It would be unusual to wear a suit, but jeans would be too casual for a meeting. Correction, jeans would be too casual for women.

The men around me seemed to be able to wear a pair of dark jeans, collared shirt, and crewneck sweater and be appropriately dressed for any setting. They seemed to be gifted with this superpower that wasn’t available to me: the ability to flow freely between client and site meetings with a simple change in footwear (dress shoes to steel toes). I already stuck out like a sore thumb on-site as 1) a woman, 2) someone who looked young, and 3) small in stature (no, the “unisex” small safety vest did not fit me). I couldn’t add further attention by wearing a blouse or dress pants. Nor could I show up to a client meeting in jeans and a sweater. There were no good options available to me that suited both environments. Additionally, many site wear clothing brands didn’t stock women’s clothing and still insisted there were no sizing differences for women’s bodies.

I was overcome with jealously when Lululemon launched their ABC pants. At the time, the equivalent women’s options resembled active wear too much to be a good fit for my world. Men had enough dress code privilege without their dress pants also being comfy! I’m mostly joking, mostly.

However, what was very real to me at the time, and I think often an invisible struggle to the men around me, was how much energy had to go into determining how to dress appropriately for a world whose professional dress code wasn’t designed to include me. I had to allot valuable brain power on thinking about how to present at work. It was exhausting.

Stressing about what shirt to wear to work may sound “silly” or “trivial”. I do appreciate that in general, we could all spend less time thinking about the way we look. Or at least, how the way we look is perceived by others. It would make us all happier. I whole-heartedly agree. However, I was showing up to work everyday in an environment where when someone called for the structural engineer, they weren’t expecting me to walk through the door. I had to show up a little more prepared to prove my technical expertise. I had to hide myself a little bit so I could assimilate with the expectations of how a structural engineer looked. Bias is real and when there’s a largely homogenous environment, it is challenging to deviate from that group even if no one is intending to exclude or minimize you. It’s not that some people are biased, and others aren’t. We all are, but in that environment, there was a largely uniform majority with complimenting biases. I didn’t fit in, so I needed to work a little harder to prove my worthiness.

In many ways, I was lucky, and my experience was much easier because I am a white straight, woman. I was privileged enough to identify with some aspects of the majority group. Dress codes and uniforms can be much more difficult to navigate for folks who identify with multiple intersecting minority groups. For example, Black women are too often told that their hairstyles are “unprofessional” when “professional” seems to be narrowly defined to include white hairstyle only. Or when non-binary or gender nonconforming people are asked to pick between two highly gendered uniforms that don’t accurately reflect their gender identity or expression. Or worse, assigned one of those gendered uniforms.

There is good news though. Many employers are making powerful strides on redefining dress code and uniform policies to be more inclusive. Alaska Airlines employees are now able to choose between “Lakes” and “Rocky Mountain” uniform options instead of “Women” and “Men”. Virgin Atlantic’s staff does still have uniforms that conform to outdated binary gender expectations, but employees are now able to pick the option that feels most comfortable to them. They’re also able to opt to include pronouns on their nametags. Iceland’s Play Airlines seems to be on the real front line by seeking staff input in the creation of their new non-gendered uniforms. Bonus, they also feature sneakers instead of heels or dress shoes.

These are small steps in many ways, but they are promising steps forward to reduce gendered pressures on the way we present at work. I hope the future is free from the mental gymnastics needed to navigate dress codes, uniforms, and the unwritten rules of professionalism in the way we dress. Showing up as our true selves with more energy to do our jobs will certainly enable us all to do better work.


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