Gendered Dress Codes in the Workplace Create Controversy

Both public and private institutions have sparked controversy by promoting gender-specific dress codes for employees. The US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has come under criticism for publishing gendered clothing tips in the employee newsletter this summer. OSC’s newsletter included a “Business Casual do’s and don’ts,” offering “sexist and patronizing advice” to professional women in the workplace, according to Debra S. Katz, an attorney who is representing a group of OSC employees. In a letter to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues last week, Katz asked that steps be taken to direct OSC — which is ironically responsible for eliminating workplace sex discrimination — to rescind its dress advice and apologize for its offensive and sexist newsletter content.

Katz adds that under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers are legally accountable for “rigid gender-based stereotypes [which] operate to the detriment of their female employees.” While the courts have upheld the rights of companies to promote different grooming standards for the sexes, an employer must ensure that each sex is “equally burdened,” Law.com writes.

In a similar case earlier this year, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that a Harrah’s Casino policy violated Title VII, siding with Darlene Jespersen, who filed a sex discrimination suit after being fired from Harrah’s for refusing to comply with a new grooming policy. According to Lambda Legal, which served as co-counsel on Jespersen’s case, Harrah’s policy required that all women in the beverage department wear specific makeup to match a photograph, while men were forbidden from wearing any makeup at all. Women also had to wear their hair styled and maintain clear, red, pink, or white painted fingernails. Jespersen successfully argued that the requirements make her feel “demeaned,” “degraded,” and unable to remain credible as a bartender who occasionally breaks up fights, Law.com reports.


Washington Post 9/7/2006; Law.com 8/25/2006; Lambda Legal 7/15/2004; Debra Katz letter 8/31/06

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