Is an office dress code about professionalism or subversive sexism?

This is a real question I’m asking. In fact, this entire post will be questions.

This topic comes up here and there for me and I’ve debated writing about it before. I get started writing and then I end up with more questions. I decide that dress codes are inherently sexist and then I change my mind.

I’m sharing this post now because I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Think Tank has tackled building your personal brand before and every time this topic comes up it starts needling at the back of my brain. Instead of trying to figure it out, I’ve decided to pose my questions to the Think Tank and see what you think.

The subject of dress codes is not new. It’s frequently controversial or alternatively incredibly boring. When I think of building my personal brand that brand includes how I look. And once I start thinking about appearances, clothing is a part of that. I want my brand to be professional and trustworthy but I also struggle with what is considered professional to some but not to others.

According to Better Team’s sample dress code, a business dress code states:

For men, this typically means a shirt, tie, jacket and dress shoes. For women a skirt or pants suit with closed-toe heels. All clothing should be clean and pressed. Clothing should not be too revealing.

In my experience, it’s not a big deal for a man to dress in essentially the same outfit all week and no one blinks an eye. For women though, there is often an expectation for more fashion choices.

I’m not saying that men never get criticized for their clothing but as far as dress codes go, they’ve got it pretty easy.

While the dress code language above may seem innocent enough, I struggle with the idea of separating out what is and isn’t appropriate. What might seem neutral at first can very easily be seen as targeted upon further inspection. I have so many questions about that vague little paragraph.

  • What counts as dress shoes?
  • Why must the women’s shoes be closed-toed heels?
  • Must they be heels?
  • Would flats be considered appropriate?
  • How high does the heel need to be to count?
  • Or how high is too high?
  • How serious are they about pressing? (Some of us don’t believe in ironing is all I’m saying.)
  • What does “revealing” mean?
  • Who are we talking about when we say revealing?
  • What exactly is too revealing for men?
  • What is too revealing for women?
  • How does a company define that?
  • How does a company police that?
  • Where does style play into this?

What is revealing?

All bodies are different and so how clothing looks changes based on the body it’s on. Some clothes on one body look professional and yet the same style on another body could be considered revealing. How do you make the distinction?

  • Is revealing a code word for showing too much skin?
  • Is this a slight avoidance of using the word cleavage?
  • What if it’s a man with a low v-neck shirt or a button-down that’s open?
  • Is that too much chest?
  • What about women with large breasts? At a certain point, all shirts for busty women are “revealing” so at some point you have to draw the line.

I have large thighs, a large butt, and a small waist. It is incredibly hard for me to find pants that aren’t tight through the hips and thighs but fit at the waist. My shape almost always shows. Is that too revealing?

What’s wrong with revealing clothing?

Whenever I see commentary about appropriate attire, I wonder why the idea of revealing clothing is an issue.

  • Is it really a surprise when we see that someone with clothing on has a body underneath?
  • Are we uncomfortable with the variety of body styles and so seeing bodies of different types is shocking?
  • Is it fatphobia or thinphobia?
  • And why does it seem to be so centered around women?

We hear about clothing fitting too tight or cleavage showing. Dresses showing too much leg or tank tops showing off too much arm. It’s almost like the idea of showing our body (which literally 100% of us have) is problematic. But why? 

  • Is it because it’s a distraction?
  • Are women’s bodies so incredibly stunning (obviously yes!) that other people can’t possibly focus when parts of them are visible?
  • Or is it because we sexualize women’s bodies more?
  • And if we sexualize women’s bodies more (which we absolutely do) then why aren’t we holding the people sexualizing the bodies accountable instead of the body that shows up with no say?

What does it mean to dress professionally then?

This is where I tend to go around in circles. I think there is a standard for professionalism. I think how you look dictates how you feel and how you are perceived in the workplace.

Whether it’s because you’re meeting with clients or you’re in back to back boardroom meetings, there is a standard that is considered professional.

  • But is that standard inherently sexist?
  • Do we really hold women and men to different standards?
  • Even if the code is written perfectly neutral, do we still expect more or less from women?

Do we really need dress codes?

I tend to be one of those people who assumes the best in folks. I just assume that if you treat adults like adults, they’ll act like adults. When GM’s  Chief Executive, Mary Barra’s updated GM’s dress code to, “Dress appropriately,” it caused some serious discussion and even more questions for me!

  • Is it enough or will people still have questions?
  • Does it change based on your role?

I got to thinking (more questions coming), what would a neutral dress code look like?

HR expert Susan Heathfield states in her sample business casual dress code,

Because all casual clothing is not suitable for the office, these guidelines will help you determine what is appropriate to wear to work. Clothing that works well for the beach, yard work, dance clubs, exercise sessions, and sports contests may not be appropriate for a professional appearance at work.

And while it does seem rather neutral, it also seems like there is a potential for double standards being held between women and men.

  • Is a maxi dress with a jean jacket considered beach attire or appropriate for casual Friday?
  • Could a sheath dress be confused for dance club attire?
  • Where is the line for this?
  • Without a line, are we holding women to a different standard unconsciously?

For me, I don’t have any true answers to this. As a woman in a professional setting, it’s important to me that I’m taken seriously and that I’m being seen as a professional.

  • But how does a pair of tight pants or a little bit of cleavage really stop me from being professional?
  • Does the acknowledgment through dress that I have a body change my capacity?

If you’re reading this and wondering what is the point of these questions, here it is. I work at a law firm. I work on a team of professionals with professional attorneys. I manage my staff. All of us are incredibly capable and intelligent adults.

  • What is the point of a dress code if not to dictate the appropriate norms for women and men?
  • Are we perpetuating sexism by focusing on dress code?
  • Or are we simply providing guardrails for our expectations of professionalism?

I would love to hear what the Think Tank thinks about this topic.


Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash.