EARLY last week, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) declared sexualized and gender-specific dress codes discriminatory. Central to the commission’s findings was the revelation that service industry jobs, such as those in restaurants and bars — where young people make up an overwhelming majority of the work force — are particularly at fault when it comes to inappropriate dress requirements. The OHRC will now require employers to explicitly divulge sex-based differences in dress codes when hiring.
This decision should be commended, as it sets clear standards to combat sexist dress codes that many still face when working in the service industry. It is also worth reflecting, however, on how the ruling reflects the slow progress breaking down gendered stereotypes in our society.
Women who are expected to wear tight clothing, low-cut tops, short skirts, and high heels in order to sell food and drinks are being sexualized in the workplace. This perpetuates the notion that a woman’s appearance should define her worth, and that others have the right to objectify her accordingly. Aside from the incredibly detrimental effects this can have on a woman’s mental health, sexual objectification has been linked to the perception of women as being less competent.
These negative perceptions have been correlated with the feelings and actions of disrespect for the integrity of women’s bodies. In fact, sexual objectification has been shown to increase victim blaming in rape cases and decrease the perceived suffering of victims.
When forced to squeeze into scanty uniforms, female employees are also made more vulnerable to sexual harassment from co-workers and customers. This contravenes an employer’s responsibility to protect their female employees and promote a safe work environment.
While some may argue that dressing in a ‘sexy’ way is empowering, that still does not justify mandating it for all, especially for those who feel uncomfortable. Requiring women to dress in a revealing way -— even if they would do so of their own accord — reinforces the idea that others should be able to control what they look like for their own pleasure.
Some believe that women who disagree with their employer’s dress requirements should quit and look for other jobs. This is preposterous: women should not be expected to choose between sustaining themselves financially and being comfortable in their workplace. Furthermore, quitting is often not a viable option for many employees, as many rely on their positions to pay for tuition, student loans, or living expenses.
These dress codes also exclude people of certain religious and gender identities, making it difficult for some to seek out employment in the industry. The consequences of non-compliance can be dire, even if the employer merely imposes an ‘informal’ dress code on their workers. Employees who choose to protest these expectations may lose shifts or even their jobs. As a result, they may simply oblige.
A human rights tribunal is needed to get these messages across. Yet, I am skeptical of the ruling’s hypothetical outcomes.
In 1981, the OHRC produced a similar ruling, which determined that gendered dress codes were discriminatory. It seems the previous judgment did little to shift to a broader culture.
The complaints procedure poses a significant obstacle for many women. Although employees may choose to file human rights claims and seek financial compensation for discriminatory treatment from employers, this route is time-consuming and inaccessible to those who can’t afford it. Instead of punishing employers after the fact, it should be emphasized that it is the dress codes that have got to go.
The OHRC’s policy position may not be enough to generate change in the service industry. Alongside financial and logistical barriers to filing a complaint, employees may still feel insecure about coming forward to claim discrimination, especially against intimidating employers.
While the OHRC’s policy declarations were positive, they will not suddenly provoke revolutionary change. This truth is frustrating but humbling. It is important that we do not become complacent in the face of these legal victories. Instead, we should continue to emphasize the problems with discriminatory dress codes, in order to work towards fully eradicating such double standards.
Naomi Stuleanu is a second-year student at Victoria College studying criminology and psychology. Her column appears every three weeks.