· Comment

It’s time we stopped telling women what to wear to work

Telling women what they can wear is once again making headlines. This authoritarian, ‘big brother knows best’ approach is a regression and an attack of individual identity and freedom.

A few weeks ago, the European Court of Justice, in response to two Muslim women, passed a ruling to prohibit religious symbols in favour of neutral clothing.

This includes the headscarf, effectively giving permission to employers to discriminate against those who opt to wear a hijab as part of their religious identity.

The ruling sets wheels in motion that will allow discrimination and may effectively force Muslim women out of the employment market.

The headscarf is not a measure of whether or not an employee can do a role and it should not limit a person’s opportunities and development. This decision comes amidst increasing far right rhetoric and polarisation driven by political agendas and rather than bringing people together, it can potentially drive people further apart.

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More recently, Norway's women’s handball team were fined €1,500 by the European Handball Association after they opted to play in clothing that was more comfortable and practical as opposed to wearing bikini bottoms, which is part of the standardised uniform.

The women’s team had asked if they could wear the shorts ahead of the game but were denied.

In fact, they had been complaining about wearing skimpy clothing since 2006 to the International Handball Federation (IHF) but according to its rules women must wear bikini bottoms no longer than four inches, “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.” By contrast men can wear shorts at least four inches above the knee, provided they are “not too baggy.”

The question has to be asked where this norm was established and why there is this requirement.

It is not about being practical. If anything, it distracts the team from focusing on the job at hand: to play sport, compete and perform their best, which is impossible if they are worried about accidently exposing themselves.

The double standards are very clear. You would not expect the men’s team to play in a mankini.

In a similar vein, at this year's Olympics in Tokyo, the German gymnast team have opted to wear full body leotards, ditching the usual bikini cut.

The German gymnastics Federation explained their gymnasts began wearing the longer leotard to take a stand against the sexualisation of gymnastics.

Sport and gendered clothing is nothing new, with Serena Williams causing controversy in 2018, when she opted to wear a catsuit on the tennis court at the French Open.

The French Tennis Federation regarded it as disrespectful to the game, despite Williams’s clothing probably being more comfortable and practical.

Dress codes leading to restrictions on women participating and performing is not new.

It is encouraging to see increasingly a number of sports now allow Muslim female athletes to compete wearing their head scarves which for a very long time created artificial barriers into certain sports.

At the heart of all these issues is the sexualisation and objectification of women. Women are expected and required to reveal themselves, their hair, their bodies, leading to a society in which women are demeaned and not allowed to present themselves how they want to and not just in sport.  

Go back a few decades and it was the norm in organisations to have set dress codes for men and women, often being policed by the HR department in a bid to achieve conformity while at the same time pushing the narrative that people were the most important resource in the business.

Some employers took this to an extreme length, deciding not just what an employee should wear but also dictating hair styles and personal grooming.

Most workplaces have this issue to a greater or lesser degree with women expected to wear heels for no practical advantage or relevance to their roles. But this is how the world of work was designed - by men for men. It’s not how the world of work has to be.

As an HR professional, if you are policing dress codes this is your opportunity to rethink uniforms and conformity. You are best placed to advocate inclusion, allowing for individuality and practicality to enable your people to deliver and perform.

How we dress and what we do with our hair should be about personal choice and identity. Clothing performs a number of functions other than covering up our bodies. It is practical in response to weather conditions, comfortable as well as allowing for individualism.

In 2021, draconian decisions are still being made mostly by men to the detriment of women. These recent cases act as a reminder of how far we are from reaching an inclusive, pluralistic society despite having focused so much on getting gender right.

Women being told what they can or cannot wear by others is demeaning to women who surely should make that decision for themselves without others imposing their will upon them.

The mantra that often is cited about bringing your whole self to work in some organisations and contexts is being paid lip service, but conformity is still very much high up on the agenda. 


Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire.


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