Back when I was a first-year law student (long, long ago), I had a female classmate who was very good-looking with very blonde hair. Let’s call her Cathy. Cathy also tended to wear low-cut tops which showed off her cleavage, so not only was she good-looking but she had the confidence to be “sexy” while most of us were wearing baggy jumpers and ill-fitting jeans on a daily basis. In a conversation over coffee one day, another female law student remarked very casually that Cathy was “of course, a bit of a bimbo.” We all nodded our assent, giving it little thought. As it turns out, Cathy was one of the cleverest and hardest working students in the year.
Why do we (women and men) assume that there is a clear inverse link between a woman’s physical appearance (including her choice of clothing) and her IQ?
Perhaps things have moved on a bit since then but … maybe not. A poll of 1,000 women recently found that we believe that women should avoid “provocative” clothing such as low-cut tops and tight miniskirts at work if they want to get ahead. We also frown on those who wear too much makeup. However, 61% of those polled said they would find it hard if a strict dress code was imposed on them.
Dress codes seem to throw up more issues for women than they do for men. It seems, as is the case in popular culture, the arts and the media, we care a lot about how women look and present themselves at work. Some employers require women to wear makeup as part of “good grooming” required for a role. Others demand high heels, in spite of the fact that we know these are often not comfortable or indeed healthy for women to wear. Not that long ago, female barristers could not wear trouser suits in court and some employers had a similar ban. Then there are the dress codes which advise against low-cut tops or generally showing too much flesh, in order to maintain a “serious” corporate image.
I regularly advise women in the City who have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature or remarks about their appearance from male colleagues or superiors. Sometimes they have said they think it’s because they are “curvy” or perhaps a little flamboyant in their appearance. Then there are the subtler cases where women feel their opportunities for promotion or development have been hampered because they are perceived to be too “colourful” or “fun” in their dress rather than following the male norm and sticking to the safe, navy suit. I’ve had a client tell me she was advised by an apparently well-intentioned male colleague to dye her hair a darker colour in order to be taken more seriously.
We all know how quickly first impressions are formed and how lasting they are. But we will keep fighting cases where we believe out-dated, prejudiced and stereotypical views of women, based on appearance or otherwise, result in Sex Discrimination and harassment at work.
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By Claire Dawson, Employment Law Expert.