Prior to becoming GM CEO, when Mary Barra took over as the company’s Global VP of Human Resources in 2009 one of her first tasks was to simplify the dress code from a ten page dissertation down to two simple words:
By making this update, Barra was telling her employees and the world that the workforce is full of adults who are (largely) competent enough to know what is and is not acceptable to wear in the workplace.
And GM isn’t alone. In the decade since this move there has been nearly a 4% decline in companies adopting formal dress code policies with 44% of companies now allowing casual dress throughout the workweek.
Despite this progress, it can be nearly impossible for women to satisfy everyone’s standards; there are still people telling us that we shouldn’t wear backpacks or leggings in public, yet we should wear knee-high boots on airplanes and don $4,000 earrings while working from home.
Sadly this is nothing new, as there is a long history of society policing women to look “proper” or more feminine. Even at a young age girls are conditioned to believe that the way they dress could cause a distraction in our schools, and instead of holding harassers accountable for their behavior women and girls alike are being punished for daring to infringe upon the male gaze.
Women are fighting back, whether it’s in our offices and schools, on the red carpet, or within the halls of Congress. Like others before us, the up and coming generation of millennial women recognize the value of bringing their authentic selves to the workplace; we resist the notion that we need to feel like imposters or break the bank to be taken seriously as professionals.
Not to say that men aren’t also pressured to meet certain appearance standards, but it’s been shown that women are more often singled out as violators of dress code policies and spend nearly twice as much time worrying about how they look throughout the day than their male counterparts.
What can we do as HR Professionals to curb this obsession with the female appearance in the workplace? If you’re not in a position to throw out the dress code altogether like GM, adopt gender-neutral policies which hold men and women accountable to equal standards. We also need to think about the value-add in policing dress code violations. Do we really want to spend an hour arguing with Suzy in Accounting over the “definition of sandals” when we could be doing literally anything else?
Anyways, I could go on but it’s nearly lunchtime and I should really change out of my pajamas for the day.