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We need to expose and challenge gendered appearance norms

For women work attire is neither trivial nor neutral. Dress codes can be barometers of broader social perceptions

Nicola Thorp’s experience of being sent home by Portico, a temp employment agency, after refusing to wear high heels for a temporary receptionist post at PricewaterhouseCoopers, brings into sharp relief how double standards still operate for men and women at work.

We all keep to dress codes that are either explicit (such as uniforms) or implicit (for example wearing formal clothing rather than casual dress). These are accepted norms in the workplace that indicate professionalism and belonging to a particular role.

In this case what was stated as an obligation – for women to wear high heels – breaches the bounds of those norms; the focus shifts from professionalism and workplace fit. This practice implies a judgement about what is more or less attractive for women to wear, an evaluation that is not levelled at men.

This supports my research into the experiences of women leaders that illuminates ‘invisible’ rules, where women in the workplace often feel assessed by their appearance rather than their ability.

This research among women leaders has found that dress in the workplace is tricky territory. Behind the dress codes we all adhere to are more subtle and ‘invisible’ rules, resulting from stereotypical expectations that women must learn to negotiate to enable them to fit in. This includes wearing clothes to ‘blend in’ that are neither too feminine and draw attention to ‘femaleness’, nor too masculine so that women are not seen to be emulating men.

The experiences of women from different sectors including small business, public roles and higher education, pointed to how deciding what to wear to work is a strategic decision that can make the difference between being seen as a credible professional or leader, or being marginalised.

One small business owner, for example, highlighted how she felt that she was often ignored because she looked like a mum rather than a leader. Other women discussed consciously dressing to accentuate their femininity. One HE senior leader talked about mixing femininity with masculinity to free her from expectations of being ‘a good girl’, and making her femaleness more visible through dress and make-up, as a way of tempering what were usually regarded as masculine characteristics of being assertive.

These experiences illuminate how, for women, workplace attire is neither a trivial nor a neutral subject. Whether selecting clothes that make you stand out or help you to blend in, dressing for work for women is something that has to be consciously thought about. Both formal and informal dress codes can be important barometers of broader social perceptions and expectations of women’s social role. As such they can reflect gendered norms that place greater emphasis on how women look rather than how they do their job.

Nicola Thorp’s refusal to wear high heels is an important reminder of how these gendered norms underpin everyday workplace practice and can become invisible and taken for granted. Exposing and challenging such discriminatory practice can feel risky. Thorp said she was ‘scared about speaking up’ and setting up a negative backlash.

Organisations therefore have a responsibility to review established practices such as dress codes. Unless we surface and call to account these outdated and unfair practices we cannot progress gender equality in the workplace.

Valerie Stead is a senior lecturer in management learning and leadership at Lancaster University Management School