If you work in an office, or if you interact with customers regularly, you need to dress appropriately. That’s common sense—but for women, workplace fashion can be a minefield. Female employees face different standards than their male coworkers, and when dress codes are complex, women often work harder than men to comply.
We looked into some surprising cases of discriminatory dress codes, along with one workplace that found an effective solution.
One woman says she was fired for wearing high heels.
In a survey conducted by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, 80 percent of women reported foot pain. 74 percent of respondents wore high heels, and 60 percent said that they wore uncomfortable shoes for at least one hour every day.
Many of those women said that they suffered the discomfort for their careers. In many workplaces, high heels are commonplace—and in some, they’re mandatory. British actor Nicola Thorp reportedly lost her office job in London in 2016 due to one such policy.
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) January 25, 2017
“I showed up in what I would normally wear, a suit and a pair of smart shoes, and the manager told me, on my first day, that I needed to go buy a pair of high heels or go home,” Thorp wrote in a piece published by Today. “It felt really wrong. I felt embarrassed.”
Thorp chose to go home. Later, she started a petition: “Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work.” It attracted more than 150,000 signatures and prompted a debate in Parliament.
“I had experienced this kind of thing before, and I had just had enough,” she wrote. “I decided right away that I was going to do everything I could to make sure this wasn’t happening to other women, because I knew it was. I knew my case wasn’t isolated.”
I got sent home from work for wearing flats. It’s still legal for employers to require women to wear heels..pls sign https://t.co/2VxzAQhdoC
— Nicola Thorp (@nicolathorp_) May 10, 2016
Unfortunately, the U.K. government rejected Thorp’s proposal, reasoning that current laws were sufficient. “Company dress codes must be reasonable and must make equivalent requirements for men and women,” the government wrote in its official response. Proponents of the petition weren’t convinced; after all, there’s not really anything in male fashion that compares with high heels
“As women, I think we have become used to the fact that society pressures us to change the way we look,” Thorp wrote. “It had become normal to me that an employer would go beyond asking me to look professional in the workplace, and would suggest that I needed to look more attractive in order to do my job.”
In the United States, waitresses pushed back against high heels.
Thorp’s story isn’t unique, and the United Kingdom isn’t the only country with a relaxed attitude toward gender discrimination in dress codes. U.S. law allows employers to set strict dress codes for women as long as they don’t discriminate against particular employees.
In 2001, Nevada considered—but did not pass—a bill that would prevent companies from requiring female employees to wear high heels if those employees had notes from their physicians. Casino servers protested the bill’s failure, carrying signs with slogans like “Kiss My Foot.”
“High-heel shoes are for the visual purpose of pleasing men,” said Charlotte Arrowsmith, a casino server with 32 years of experience. “It’s exploitation of women.”
″If somebody wants to wear it, fine, great,″ said Mary Cunningham, another server. “But you shouldn’t be made to wear [high heels] if your doctor says this is crippling.”
The movement was partially successful, as many casinos voluntarily relaxed their policies—allowing their servers to relax their tired feet. Other anti-heel campaigns have been less successful. In 2019, Japanese women rallied behind the #KuToo movement, which plays on the Japanese words for “shoes” and “agony.”
— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) June 7, 2019
“This is about gender discrimination,” said Yumi Ishikawa, who started the movement. “It’s the view that appearances are more important for women at work than for men.”
The Japanese government appeared to dismiss the movement.
“[High heels are] socially accepted as something that falls within the realm of being occupationally necessary and appropriate,” said Takumi Nemoto, Japan’s minister of labor.
One woman lost her job for refusing to wear makeup.
Shoes aren’t the only form of gender discrimination in workplace dress codes. Melanie Stark was a 24-year-old sales assistant at Harrods, a department store in the United Kingdom. In 2011, she made headlines by drawing attention to the company’s policies.
Harrods’ dress code required female employees to wear “full makeup at all time: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss are worn at all time and maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a ‘washing out’ effect).”
Stark refused to wear makeup—and was told to try it to see how she would look.
“I was appalled,” she told The Guardian. “It was insulting. Basically, it was implying it would be an improvement. I don’t understand how they think it is okay to say that.”
— Feminist Pics (@FeministPics) February 8, 2014
Stark said her managers thought was a stellar employee, and she’d worked there without makeup for four years. The store didn’t enforce its dress code until senior managers performed a “floor walk.” As Stark was in violation of the dress code, the managers sent her home.
“You’ve got two options: You wear make up or you leave,” she said she was told. Eventually, she left, citing the dress code. Harrods disputed that account.
“All our staff are subject to a dress code which they sign up to on joining the company, which relates to an overall polished appearance,” a company spokesperson said. “Our records show that discussions with Melanie Stark concerned a general lack of adherence to the dress code. However, no action was taken and she subsequently decided to leave the business of her own accord with no reference made to dress code.”
In most of the United States, employers can legally require women to wear makeup.
One Reddit user, writing on an anonymous account, told her story of possible workplace discrimination to the /r/legaladvice community.
“I dress very professionally wearing either a pantsuit, dress or pencil skirt to work every day,” she wrote. “My hygiene is excellent. I’ve never had complaints about my appearance anywhere I’ve worked before now.”
She started a job at a software startup. One day, her female supervisor asked to speak with her.
“I was a little surprised because I didn’t really talk to her much except for pleasantries,” she wrote. “In her office she told me that my direct superiors had asked her to speak to me because she was the only woman with the authority to and it would sound better coming from her.”
“Apparently, they would like me to wear makeup to work, she specifically said ‘foundation, eyeliner and lipstick.’ She told me that the company feels that me not doing so is unprofessional even though she did note that I dress very nicely.”
“I told her that, frankly, I dislike wearing makeup, and she said (paraphrasing slightly because I don’t really remember exactly what she said) ‘I’m sorry, but our clients see you first. And they’re more likely to patronize us again if you look good.’ She then told me that if I don’t follow ‘dress code,’ ‘termination would be possible.’ She tried to get me to sign a paper saying I’d been talked to, but I refused, I’m not stupid.”
That sounds like a clear case of illegal discrimination, but according to attorney Samantha Kemp, employers may legally establish dress codes that require female employees to wear makeup.
“Employees who believe that they have been discriminated against because of their sex typically pursue a Title VII claim,” Kemp wrote, “but cases dealing with dress codes have generally upheld an employer having a makeup policy.”
In 2018, a Long Island woman said she was fired for refusing to wear a skirt.
Chakia Harvell claimed in a lawsuit that a human resources staffer at Wyndham Vacation Ownership complained about her “unfeminine” attire.
“She would just mention, ‘Did you go back to the guidelines as far as the dress code?’ and the next day, she’d say, ‘I sent the email again, did you get to the dress code part?’” Harvell recalled.
The HR representative allegedly told Harvell to “observe the [other] ladies” in the sales department. Harvell claimed that those other women “uniformly wore dresses or skirts with high heels.”
“It made me feel bad, to the point where I thought I can’t afford to change myself into something I’m not,” she said. “People should understand everyone’s different. Don’t look at how I dress, because it’s a little different than you, and judge me and think I can’t perform.”
The company said she was dismissed for being late to work, but Harvell claimed she regularly arrived on time. Harvell was seeking $1.5 million in damages, but the case has since been withdrawn, which could indicate a settlement.
While it’s impossible to know all of the details of Harvell’s case, employers are usually allowed to set gendered dress codes, provided that they’re reasonable and roughly equivalent for both men and women. However, some states and cities (including New York City) prohibit gendered dress codes, and discriminatory clothing policies may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Air conditioning might discriminate against women.
Most offices in the United States have air conditioning. It’s a welcome technology in the middle of the summer, but some women have spoken out against “thermostat patriarchy,” the idea that men control thermostats and set uncomfortably low temperatures. Women generally prefer warmer indoor temperatures than men, since they tend to have lower skin temperatures due to higher levels of estrogen and differences in circulation. Plus, office temperature standards were set in the 1960s, and they were intended to comfort the average worker of the time: 45-year-old, 154-pound men in business suits.
According to one CareerBuilder survey, 46 percent of workers say that their office is either too hot or too cold, and women are more likely than men to argue with coworkers over office temperatures. They might have a point—a study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that, at higher temperatures, women perform substantially better at math and verbal tasks. In other words, they’re more productive.
“It’s been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men, but the idea until now has been that it’s a matter of personal preference,” study co-author Tom Chang from the University of South California said. “What we found is, it’s not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter—in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try—is affected by temperature.”
“Overall, our results suggest that gender is an important factor not only in determining the impact of temperature on comfort but also on productivity and cognitive performance,” the authors wrote in the study.
Of course, women could simply wear warmer clothing—and many women keep pullovers and hoodies at their desks for this exact reason—but office dress codes could limit their ability to do so. The bottom line is that men don’t have the same experience.
One female executive changed dress code policies to trust workers.
There might be an easy way to address sexist dress codes: Stop having dress codes.
Mary Barra is General Motors’ current chief executive officer. She has worked at the company since she was a teenager, and over the years, she realized that GM had significant issues with bureaucracy. The company’s dress code included 10 pages of instructions, which made dressing for work a confusing process—especially for women.
When Barra became the vice president of global human resources in 2009, she replaced the 10-page policy with a new, two-word dress code.
“A lot gets set aside when you’re going through a restructuring process, so it was an opportunity to really define our culture,” Barra said. “So, brainstorming with the HR department, I said let’s change the dress code. Let’s make it ‘dress appropriately.’”
GM CEO Mary Barra developed a two-word dress code for employees https://t.co/0D33SmMFnC
— Quartz (@qz) April 27, 2019
The HR department pushed back, but Barra insisted on keeping the dress code simple. The change empowers workers by showing trust in their judgement.
“I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them,” Barra said. “But if you let people own policies themselves—especially at the first level of people supervision—it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things changed our culture [at GM] powerfully. They weren’t the only factor, but they contributed significantly.”
Maybe that’s the future of workplace etiquette: Adults acting like adults, trusting each other, and dressing appropriately. For women working in male-dominated workspaces, the change can’t come soon enough.