Ties for women?

In this day and age how is it still acceptable that men have to wear a shirt and tie and women don’t? Shouldn’t equality be a two-way street? Is it legal to require men and not women to follow this dress code? Has this ever been challenged in court or in a public forum?Thank you.

R. H., Reading, Ma

Most assuredly, equality should be a two-way street. But the sexes are different, and what constitutes formal dress, business casual, or casual dress for one sex is not automatically exactly what the other sex should have to wear. If it was, one might argue that men should be required to wear a skirt and suit jacket just as easily as you argue that women should have to wear a tie (the shirt goes without saying unless she is wearing a dress).What has happened, and what is reasonable, is that gender-appropriate clothing has been defined for different levels of formality.

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For instance, with a business formal attire policy a suit, shirt, and tie is appropriate for men while a pant or skirt suit with a jacket and a formal shirt is appropriate for women. When wearing a skirt, business formal dress calls for women to wear hose as well. Imagine if the code was identical for both men and women and men had to wear skirts and hose. Frankly, I’ll happily wear the tie instead of having to wear hose.

Businesses can—and should—set their own dress codes. When a person applies for a job at a company, he should learn what the company standards are and be prepared to follow the standards as an employee of that company. Problems with what is appropriate or inappropriate dress almost always reflect a business’ failure to establish a well-defined dress code. When the dress code is vague—“We have a business casual code at XYZ company”—inevitably employees are left wondering whether a collarless shirt is acceptable, if Capri pants are acceptable, what footwear is acceptable, or if a golf shirt is acceptable. By explicitly defining terms, these questions are resolved and, perhaps most importantly, not left to interpretation by managers of different divisions or departments.

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In larger corporations dress codes can vary between departments and between locations. What’s acceptable dress in an accounting department may be different from what’s acceptable in the executive offices. Similarly, what’s acceptable in the Los Angeles, California office may be different from what’s acceptable in the Atlanta, Georgia office. Employees need to know and respect those differences.

Dress codes haven’t been instituted to make life more difficult for employees. Their value rests in that they make it easier for employees to know what to wear to show respect for the company, the clients, and fellow co-workers. An employee’s job isn’t to push the limits of the dress code; rather it’s to respect the code and work within its limitations.

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