Several suit jackets hanging on hangers. The first jacket has a flower on the lapel. Concept of dress suit for groom on his wedding day.

Workplace Dress Codes and Gender Discrimination: Balancing Professionalism and Equality

By Douglas Lipsky

Workplace dress codes are policies set by employers to guide employees on acceptable workplace attire. These codes vary significantly across different industries, reflecting the nature of each work environment. In corporate settings, dress codes may lean towards formal business attire, while creative industries might allow for more casual or expressive clothing choices.

The primary purpose of implementing a dress code is to ensure a professional and cohesive appearance that aligns with the company’s image and values. In certain industries, like healthcare or manufacturing, dress codes also serve a functional role in ensuring employee safety and hygiene. But when do workplace dress codes become gender discrimination?

Identifying Gender Discrimination in Dress Codes

Gender discrimination in workplace dress codes can be subtle and requires a careful examination of the policies and their implementation. Discrimination occurs when dress codes impose different standards or restrictions based on an employee’s gender, directly or indirectly leading to unequal treatment. For instance, requiring women to wear high heels or makeup, while having no comparable requirements for men, is a clear example of gender-based discrimination. Similarly, policies that do not accommodate the clothing needs of transgender or non-binary employees can be discriminatory.

Examples of discriminatory dress code practices include:

  • Enforcing different grooming standards for men and women (e.g., men must be clean-shaven, women must wear makeup).
  • Requiring specific attire based on gender stereotypes (e.g., skirts for women, trousers for men).
  • Not allowing clothing that aligns with an employee’s gender identity.

Such discriminatory practices can have serious implications for both employees and employers. Employees may feel marginalized, leading to a hostile work environment and decreased job satisfaction. Employers, on the other hand, risk legal challenges and reputational damage. Therefore, organizations must scrutinize their dress codes to ensure they promote equality and inclusivity.

Best Practices for Employers

When designing workplace dress codes, employers should prioritize inclusivity and gender neutrality to avoid discrimination. Best practices include consulting with legal experts to ensure compliance with federal and state laws, particularly concerning gender discrimination. Employers should also actively seek employee feedback when crafting or revising dress codes, fostering a sense of inclusivity and consideration for diverse needs. 

Regularly reviewing and updating dress code policies is crucial, as societal norms and legal standards evolve. This approach not only mitigates legal risks but also contributes to a positive and inclusive workplace culture, respecting the individuality and rights of all employees.

How Employees Can Protect Their Rights

Employees can protect their rights regarding workplace dress codes by first thoroughly understanding their company’s policy and the legal protections against discrimination. If they suspect a policy is discriminatory, they should document specific instances and seek advice from HR or a trusted supervisor. Seeking legal counsel, especially if internal resolution attempts fail, can be a crucial step. Employees need to know their rights and feel empowered to speak up against policies that unfairly target or disadvantage them based on gender.

The Takeaway

Navigating the complexities of workplace dress codes requires a balanced approach that respects both legal standards and individual rights. For personalized guidance or to address specific concerns regarding gender discrimination in dress codes, talk to an experienced employment lawyer.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.