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Dressing Down Discrimination

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

Most of us adopted the news reader work-ready approach at some point during lockdown – work-ready on top and couch-ready on the bottom.

Whole fashion seasons passed without a purchase other than lycra pants, hoodies and masks. We questioned the sustainability of the fashion and textiles industry and our ‘disposable’ clothing culture. Keeping in mind that fashion industry is the third most polluting industry in the world, we could do with less. With limited access to hair and beauty services, we were forced to a stripped back appearance (or a home job). With a screen separating us from colleagues and clients, we could afford to forgo some of the grooming practices that previously wouldn’t leave home without.

Like flexible working, #COVID-19 has challenged our biases about productivity. People continued to perform continued working from home, no matter how we dressed.

Governments in Australia are now encouraging return to the workplace. Will we return to our pre-COVID behaviours?

Work appearance and fashion is a complex issue. The way you dress has cultural, social, political and religious dimensions, and can of itself be an instrument of bias and discrimination, including gender bias and discrimination.

Nicola Thorp’s her petition to challenge her employer’s enforcement of work dress codes, in her specific case an employer requirement to wear high heels, resulted in a UK government inquiry in 2017. The House of Commons Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry - High Heels and Workplace Dress Codesconcluded that dress codes for female employees (like wearing make-up, high heels, skirts above the knee) may make employees feel uncomfortable, sexualised, deterred from seeking career progress and expose women to unwanted sexual attention, let alone creating a health and safety risk. Wearing high heels for extended periods was recognised as a short- and long- term health risks. The law dealt with gendered-based dress codes under anti-discrimination legislation.

Considering appearance through a gendered lens, workplace culture and appearance are linked – sometimes through the work requirement of uniforms. Even uniforms can represent systemic bias in companies and industries. I had the pleasure of working with #JanetHolmesàCourt some years ago and watching her passionate promotion of high vis PPE for women in the construction industry– shirts with darts and pants designed for hips, let alone PPE for pregnant women.

Bias and discrimination in work-related appearance is more likely to be implicit and often unconscious.

2018 US research using eye-tracker technology aimed to determine if looking as sexualised areas such as breasts and hemline was related to perceptions of competence and electability of college students running for student association office. The research found that if students wore revealing clothing, the longer participants looked at the body parts and the less honest/trustworthy participants viewed the women, which lowered their evaluations of her competence and electability. I would be interested in your thought about how the perceived competence of women was impacted by use of videoconferencing when you can only observe head and shoulders.

Women are often aware of the interaction between appearance and work, and make extra efforts to manage the impact on how they are perceived.

In an interview by #twodopequeens, #MichelleObama described the detailed planning and logistics to meet expectations of styling and dress as First Lady of the US, way above and beyond what was required by her husband. The interview focussed on her hair – blow wave, corn rows, up dos, wigs, rain or no rain, and scheduling a critical number of engagements to warrant her hair dressing. Ms Obama and her team eventually planned ‘hair dressing holidays’ in attempt to avoid permanent hair damage by the time she left the White House.

Applying a gendered lens on female appearance often results in women feeling they need to appear in a certain way, work harder, or overcome discrimination just to do their job.

Thinking of #juliagillard, and the media criticism of her physical appearance rather than critiquing her policy or performance.

My colleague with a PhD in mathematics and a significant track record as a senior executive said she enjoyed lock down, so she didn’t have to wear six-inch heels. Pre-COVID she brought herself closer to the height of male colleagues on huge heels to give her gravitas in her executive circle. In front of a screen, height no longer matters.

Appearance at work can be a personal protest against discrimination and unconscious bias a source of creativity and self-expression and is a developing as a form of iconography.

Thanks to #Time for recent piece on #RuthBaderGinsberg and her collection of collars she wore, initially drawing attention to male dominated judiciary epitomized by the design of judges’ robes. Her collars would cover gap left for shirt and tie. Gradually #RBG used her sometimes ornate collars as symbols or to express herself.

Politically, #juliebishop’s red resignation shoes resulted in women wearing red in protest around the country and the shoes are now artefacts of protest against inequality in the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House. And the white pant suit worn by now US Vice-President #KamalaHarris is her acceptance speech it was claimed was recognition of the suffragettes.

Taking clothing and fashion to its next evolution, #Lyn-Al, a young Melbourne-based fashion designer uses the potency of fashion in promoting culture, creating a sense of belonging and wellbeing, and experiencing and expressing spiritualism. Through her wearable art, Lyn-Al celebrates her Gunai, Wiradjuri, Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta heritage.

Going back to work in 2021 gives us a window of opportunity to make a decision about what behaviours individuals, companies and communities want to continue, and those we should let go.

COVID-19 has challenged conscious and unconscious biases associated with dress and has helped to shift how we associate appearance and performance.

Breaking more entrenched discrimination associated with how someone looks, including gender and racial discrimination, requires conscious and inclusive leadership.

Practical steps leaders can take to avoid biases associated with appearance as we emerge post lock down and return to the workplace are:

  • Evaluate uniforms for discrimination in design.

  • Analyse dress codes- explicit or implicit- for unintended consequences.

  • Update unconscious bias training to create awareness of stereotyping, bias, discrimination and harassment risks associated with appearance.

  • If you are judging someone’s performance, check yourself for any stereotypes or biases that influence your assessment.

  • If you are choosing what to wear to work today, ask yourself why

  • Look for opportunities to give your team to express their creativity, improve their wellbeing and connect to their culture and heritage at work through what they wear.

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