A few years ago, I worked at a restaurant as a hostess where we were required to abide by a dress code. The dress code in and of itself was pretty standard: According to our training manual, as long as we wore all black and we weren’t dressed sloppily or showing too much skin, we were fine. But there were a few instances that made it clear that this code was a little more complex – and, in some ways, sexist – than that.
For example, when a coworker of mine came in dressed in her usual semi-professional attire, but wasn’t wearing any make-up, my boss came up to me and said, “Tell her to put a little eyeliner on, will you? She’s scaring away all the customers.” It threw me off, to say the least. She must be joking, I thought, but when my boss added that she couldn’t tell my co-worker herself because it might end up being an issue, I realized how serious she was.
It wasn’t just the one instance (nor was it just the one job) where I was witness to companies telling their female staff that looking pretty was an inherent part of their job. At the same restaurant, a bartender was sent home for not spending enough time on her hair, which, apart from this one occasion where she left it naturally curly, was always flat-ironed straight. At another job, my boss told me flat out that I got hired because he and my other managers thought I was hot. And at yet another job, female employees were advised that the prettier we looked, the more products we were likely to sell. “But don’t quote me on that,” joked my boss. Oops.
Now, it could be that I am somehow magnetically attracted to slimy, sexist jobs. But I’m willing to bet that this kind of treatment of female employees is a lot more common than we might be inclined to believe. I know countless other women who have had similar experiences at all kinds of jobs which seems to me to be indicative of a common thread — that is, that the attractiveness of female employees outweighs their professionalism or abilities to do their job.
What’s even more alarming about this is that, in my experience, employers freely acknowledge their sexist behavior. It’s more of a joke than anything, even to female employers. They know that legally they aren’t supposed to be advising employees on how to make themselves look more attractive — but we all know that sex sells, so what’s the harm?
Well, the harm is that maintaining this kind of appearance costs time and money. Furthermore, not all employees are held to the same standards. Never once have I seen, or heard, about male employees being told to put on more makeup or spend a little bit more time doing their hair. This double standard implies that the worth of a female employee depends far more on their appearance than a male employee’s does.
It’s understandable, on some level, for employers to require their staff to maintain a certain type of appearance. But when these standards place more emphasis on looking attractive than they do on looking professional, then there’s a problem. I’d like to believe that when I go to work, I’m judged on my performance rather than on my looks, but according to some of the dress codes that are put in place, this might not be the case.
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