Annie Sinclair thought the way she dressed for work at her boutique PR company was fine. “I wore pants and heels – nice ones. In my eyes I looked good,” she says. But her bosses thought otherwise. She looked good. But not quite “good” enough.
Sinclair was in a debrief meeting with her CEO and three colleagues, discussing a client meeting that had just taken place with an older man known to “like the ladies,” as Sinclair puts it. Her boss started by telling her that she had been “too shy” in front of the client and, furthermore, she should have “dressed up more.” “I was basically told bluntly that I had to dress in a slutty way to impress him in future,” she says.
An older woman chimed in. “Oh yeah, I just flash a bit of cleavage, it totally works,” she told Sinclair, laughing.
Everyone in the room found it funny, Sinclair says. She didn’t. She resigned shortly afterward.
Blow dry demands
Sinclair’s story isn’t unusual. Bank executive Mimi Fuller, 33, says that her boss got her a blow dry appointment before an important meeting, with no warning. “Just before the meeting one of the top-level managers said she had booked me into a hairdresser,” she says. “I surf before work whereas she has two blow dries a week, so our ideas of ‘acceptable levels of appearance’ are different. It’s not like I was a mess in any way that day though.”
Consult any HR guide or, for that matter, the various Sex Discrimination Acts that apply to the various states and territories of Australia, and you quickly discover that any employer who asks their female workers to change their appearance in a way that they wouldn’t ask their male counterparts to do is potentially breaking the law. “Rules regarding dress could be discriminatory if they single out some employees for different treatment because of their background or certain personal characteristics,” the Australian Human Rights Commission explains, going on to explain that gender is one of those characteristics.
It’s acceptable for employees to have a broad dress code, and ask their employees to be neat and presentable, but it’s potentially discriminatory to force a womea to wear heels, makeup or anything else that a man wouldn’t be asked to wear.
And yet it happens. Over and over again.
Short shorts for work
Katie Lewis was working behind a bar in a popular Perth, Australia pub, pulling beers. She wore jeans and sneakers, for comfort and practicality. But when her pub was taken over by a company who insisted its female wait tables wearing short shorts, Lewis was uncomfortable, particularly as none of the men who worked there were asked to dress differently.
But she liked her job and she liked her boss, so she agreed to give it a go.
“It felt like I was being stared at. Just uncomfortable. If they’d just said ‘denim shorts’ or made some kind of blanket ‘shorts’ rule, I wouldn’t have minded so much – but the fact that they said ‘short shorts’ I was uncomfortable,” she says. Lewis asked to go back to her old job behind the bar, wearing jeans, and her boss agreed. But slowly he began cutting back her shifts until Lewis’ job barely existed. Discouraged, she left.
‘Women defined by the way they look’
Lisa Heap, a women’s rights advocate, says she hears stories like these almost every day. “We’re still seeing women as being defined by the way they look at work,” she says. “And, as stupid as it sounds seeing as women make up half the workforce, it’s because women are still seen as an oddity in relation to work.”
In March, The Daily Mail took this leering attitude to new heights when it published a shocking front page comparing British Prime Minister Teresa May’s perfectly uneventful outfit to that of her Scottish counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon, whose dress choice was similar. The paper treated them like exotic birds in a zoo, critiquing every inch of their appearance from the slimness of their legs to the fabric of their clothes. “So, is this proof the fashion world fails to cater for career women and there really are so few options for a high-powered female that everyone ends up dressing the same?” The newspaper asked.
Well no. It’s proof that once again women aren’t taken seriously in the workplace, and are looked at like they’re freaks — even if they’re two of the most powerful humans on the planet.
The law says ‘no’
Australian law is supposed to protect women from having to face the perpetual barrier of appearance in their workplaces and let them get on with the job. But Heap says the law is largely toothless as very few women ever speak up if they feel they’re being asked to change their clothes, hair or makeup in a discriminatory way, for the very real fear of being persecuted.
“I’ve represented women in these sorts of discrimination situations and the system does not work well for them at all,” Heap says. “If you make a complaint you’re potentially jeopardizing employment if you’re still working there. If you’re not there and you’ve left you’re likely only going to be looking for compensation or an apology. We know compensation amounts are very low and it’s a very difficult process.” Plus, she says, you risk getting the reputation as ‘difficult’ with future employers. “It’s a damaging, difficult process,” Heap says.
In fact, when a woman does speak up it makes headline news around the world, because it’s so unusual. Last year United Kingdom receptionist Nicola Thorp was fired for refusing to wear high heels at PricewaterhouseCoopers. After collecting 150,000 petition signatures she forced the UK government to investigate the way bosses treated women at work in terms of their appearance. “It is fair to say that what we found shocked us,” Labour MP Helen Jones who headed the committee said. “We found attitudes that belonged more, I was going to say in the 1950s but probably the 1850s might be more accurate, than in the 21st century. “
‘It’s not normal for us to be treated this way’
Heap says the only way women will ever see change is when workplaces begin admitting that there’s a problem. “It’s an unpopular line because people believe we have equality,” she says. “But every indicator we have says this is not the case. The number of women who are making complaints around sexual harassment has increased. The number of women who are experiencing discrimination returning to work after pregnancy is increasing. The gender pay gap is increasing. Every indicator we have tells us gender equality hasn’t been achieved at work. And yet we like to accept as a country that we have got equality.”
Only when workplaces start taking this problem seriously, and women work together collectively to stand up for their rights will there be any sort of change, Heap says. She yearn for the day when women can wake up, put on something safe, comfortable and functional and simply do their jobs.
“It’s not normal,” she adds, “for us to be treated this way.”