In a post-COVID workplace, is a “professional” dress code still relevant? Global Voices

Illustration credits © Galina Hasanova, used with permission.

The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Megan Smith, Thalia Trinidad and Rigoberto Melgar-Melgar in the conceptualization and production of this piece.

In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic, most people have been in front of screens. The massive shift to working from home has led to a change in fashion trends – a new affection for sweatpants, for example. Western occupational dress standards prohibiting jeans, athletic shorts and t-shirts have either been relaxed or completely disappeared. For example, the Sales for Gap’s Athleta unit, which sells tights, sweatpants, sweatshirts and workout tops were up 6%, compared to a 52% decline at Banana Republic, which sells dressier clothes.

According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, during the first two years of working from home, 17% wore pajamas like their typical daily work attire. The pandemic has put unacknowledged pressure on formal wear outlets, for example, the iconic Brooks Brothers asked bankruptcy in 2020. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has radically redesigned workplace dress codes, making an item known as “Zoom shirt” – a clean shirt or blouse that you keep on the back of your office chair to be quickly presentable for video conferences – the only absolute necessity.

In the “new normal” workplace, will women’s sports suits and men’s corporate uniforms become unnecessary? While some fashion experts expect the desire for comfortable clothing survive the pandemicsome HR professionals like Riia O’Donnell are concerned that working from home and the dress code of many employees’yell unprofessional.” Similarly, Megan Serullo, business reporter for CBS Interactive, Noted this “Most work-from-home attire is hardly acceptable outdoors, let alone in any kind of work environment.” As organizations push employees back to the physical workplace, are workplace dress codes about to change or will these “professional” structures be thrown out the window completely?

Are modern dress codes “professional” or just a path to ableism??

After more than two years of working remotely, some employers are slowly talking about back to the office, and as such, the days of casual dress may be coming to an end. The transition to the physical workspace could signal a return to the professional dress code and with that, the return to gender norms and assumptions around appearance and professionalism. Robyn Hopper, Advisor for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), said that employers reminded employees “not to come to the office in yoga pants and flip flops.” Likewise, aIlen Smith of SHRM writing that “the modified dress code – like the usual dress code when individuals return to the workplace – must be applied consistently and must provide guidelines that maintain professionalism”. This sense of returning to professional attire, however, can create countless barriers for people with disabilities (PDs).

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a major catalyst for the global disability rights movement. Yet little progress has been made on employment: employment rate for people with disabilities is 34.6% compared to 77.6% for people without disabilities. The role of employment discrimination in these statistics is important, but dress discrimination is also a factor.

Researchers at the University of Missouri recently found that the participation of people with disabilities in the workplace can be exacerbated by the lack of suitable professional clothing on the market. Lucy Richardson, Child Protection and Disability Inclusion Unit Specialist, UNICEF, said:

Work clothes do not take into account wheelchair users who are seated throughout their working day. It’s especially difficult to find skirts or dresses that are long enough when seated and jackets that don’t wrinkle and become uncomfortable.

Lack of suitable clothing as well as strict dress code rules hinder employment opportunities for people with disabilities. According to a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia, people with disabilities don’t apply for jobs because they don’t believe they can meet office dress code expectations. When policies for transitioning to the pre-pandemic dress code are implemented without due diligence, they can unintentionally discriminate against people with disabilities and prevent them from having equal access to employment in the open labor market.

Renewed expectations around standard work dress codes reflect the return to the pre-COVID-19 lack of creative thinking around the myriad ways we can all engage in work. In our “back to normal” momentum, we ignore the often more inclusive and productive methods we have used over the past two years. The reasonable accommodation such as telework, which people with disabilities have been consistently calling for for decades, suddenly became possible and used in droves during COVID-19, and has been recognized as being widely beneficial to the entire workplace. Trying to return to the standardized and restrictive work culture – including stereotypical dress codes – does a huge disservice to the creative progress working in an environment of uncertainty.

According a report of the Return On Disability Group, although 90% of companies say they prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability in these initiatives. The return to pre-pandemic occupational dress codes increases stigma and decreases self-efficacy for people with disabilities.

Therefore, employers should not reinstate pre-pandemic dress code policies that require people with disabilities to conform to an ableist definition of professionalism. By having a more relaxed dress code and incorporating disability etiquette in the workplace, employers can make it more inclusive and fair for people with disabilities, allowing them to do their jobs effectively, safely and comfortably. In the era of the new normal, employers must remember to include people with disabilities and involve them as equal partners in the decision-making process governing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, including disability-friendly policies, bearing in mind this disability is not a unique experience. Currently, one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, of all races, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, religions, incomes and social classes, have a disability.

Gender dress codes

People with disabilities aren’t the only group to suffer from strict dress codes. In the United States, LGBTQ+ people disproportionately experience higher poverty rates compared to their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. These inequalities have been exacerbated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic with nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ households facing a job or salary interruption. The National LGBTQ+ Task Force reports that transgender workers report an unemployment rate twice that of the population as a whole. Non-binary workers are often subject to significant rates of discrimination in the workplace with nearly one third party victim of discrimination in the hiring process alone. Employee According Human Rights Watch report.

In the workplace, binary gender expectations cause LGBTQ+ people to experience feelings of insecurity, helplessness, anxiety, and self-doubt. human rights campaign reports that one in five LGBTQ+ workers have been told or have been told by co-workers that they should dress more feminine or masculine by aligning with “traditional” gender norms. As a result, LGBTQ+ people experience a loss of belonging at work. Flexible dress codes can create a work environment that celebrates LGBTQ+ people, allowing workers to present themselves authentically with their unique identities, interests, and styles. As employers revise their workplace policies, written dress code policies should be drafted gender neutral. Following the filing of a complaint against Alaska Airlines by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in May 2021, the airline announcement by the end of March 2022, that it had updated its dress code policies to make them more neutral and inclusive.

Cara Levine-Brenner, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Dutchess, said:

As a gender nonconforming academic, I have struggled with what constitutes professional dress throughout my career. Wearing a button-up top and pants is not a neutral look for female teachers. But my students, who have even less power in the workplace, suffer far more tangible consequences. Many waiting tables and are encouraged to appear as cis-gendered as possible. Uniform options are limited to skirts and high-cut shorts for those who identify as women, while workers who identify as cis men can wear bermuda shorts or slacks. Discomfort and vulnerability, along with expectations of additional grooming, unfairly disadvantage those who identify – or are identified – as female.

The pandemic has disrupted the lives of many people; however, it also gave organizations the opportunity to reevaluate what they are and where they want to go. Organizations must seize this moment to turn ambiguity into opportunity by embracing gender-neutral clothing options. A gender-neutral dress code would help employers create a fair and equitable workplace and provide a safer and more inclusive work environment where everyone can bring their best and most authentic to work.

Return to Work shines a light on inequalities in workplace visibility and its connection to power and influence – a factor that has a direct impact on underrepresented groups within the workforce. To center work at the intersection of gender, sexual orientation, ableism and implicit bias, organizations must take intentional steps to eradicate practices and norms that inadvertently discriminate based on appearance and enact a deeply rooted culture of white supremacy if they truly want to live the DEI principles. The adoption of a more gender-neutral, less restrictive and diverse style of dress code will open doors for employees from underrepresented groups.

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