In March of 2019, some women working at the provincial legislature in British Columbia were issued warnings that their sleeveless shirts did not meet the institution’s standards of business attire. This incident evoked controversy that largely portrayed the policy or its enforcement as a gendered attack on women, even though the sleeve requirement applied to both genders. Dress code requirements that applied only to men, like the need to wear a tie, received no such controversy or interpretation as a gender issue.
I want to bring attention to this incident and the response it received as an example of problems with the modern discourse on gender issues. It seems that none of the people who portrayed the dress code incident as a gendered attack on women gave any thought or concern to the men’s side of the issue, and the fact that they have to follow the same or more restrictive dress code requirements.
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1. The incident and controversy
After the women were cautioned for wearing short sleeves, many other women working at the legislature came to work wearing short sleeves in protest. The protest was covered in various news outlets (Global News, CBC News, Vancouver Sun, The Star Vancouver, Vancouver Is Awesome) and the articles included overwhelmingly critical commentary (from people who work there, and others who don’t) that strongly emphasized gender.
From the above articles, the protest was “in defiance of what they say is a sexist and arbitrary dress code”; one legislator said “[t]he notion of telling women how to dress is indeed crazy”; BC Today reporter Shannon Waters called it “ridiculous” that women felt they were “being told our arms [are] not acceptable in a professional context”, adding that “I personally don’t think women’s bare arms are unprofessional or offensive”; Deputy Premier Carole James called for a change to the dress code and compared it to changes providing women’s washrooms on site when she started working there; Vancouver criminal lawyer Kyla Lee said “if one man or a group of men are not able to tolerate it, then they are the ones who need to cover a body part: their mouths”.
This highly gendered interpretation was made despite the fact that, as mentioned, the policy applies to both men and women—or at least it did at the time. A full review of the dress code is underway, but a preliminary memo authorized sleeveless attire for women only. “For men, jackets, collared shirts and ties will still be the expected standard of dress.” In announcing this change, the speaker of the house referenced his commitment to “gender sensitivity and awareness at the legislative assembly, a workplace setting that has been dominated by one gender for far too long”.
There are three criticisms that should be made and distinguished here.
The first criticism is for the commentators who portrayed the gender-neutral dress requirement in such a gendered way. People hearing that commentary in the news could easily get the wrong impression that women had a more restrictive dress code than men, if they didn’t reflect and realize that it’s unlikely men were allowed to go sleeveless either.
The second criticism is for the institution and its tentative decision to respond to this controversy by changing the dress code requirement for women only. Their “gender sensitive” response was to create a new gender distinction in the dress code requirements.
And the third criticism is for the general lack of commentary about gender-specific dress requirements for men, particularly from people who would be very concerned about gender-specific dress requirements for women. If someone values (or even is simply indifferent to) traditional gender roles and distinctions then that’s another story, but to treat the same issues wildly differently depending on which gender is affected is wrong.
2. Addressing possible counterpoints
Some might argue that this dress code was sexist, even though it applied to both genders, because only women were cautioned for sleeveless attire. But this seems much more likely a result of no men attempting to go sleeveless, rather than selective enforcement against women. Is a dress code sexist just because one gender is more likely to violate it?
I actually think the answer actually can be yes, if the reason one gender is more likely to violate the dress code is that the dress code does not provide them with options that are within the realm of normal or comfortable dress for their gender. Rules like “all swimmers in this pool must wear a bikini” or “everyone attending the gala must wear a tuxedo” are gender-neutral but I would consider them unfair to one gender or the other.
But I don’t think that making women wear sleeves like their male colleagues is comparable to making women wear a tuxedo or men wear a bikini. Women wear sleeves all the time, especially when the weather is colder. This incident seems much more comparable to, for example, a school where children are not allowed to wear hats in class, and only boys got disciplined because only boys tried to wear hats in class. There, I’d be surprised to see media coverage with commentary interpreting the no-hat policy as “sexist and arbitrary” and a gendered attack on boys, and I’d be extremely surprised if the controversy subsided after the school changed its policy to allow boys (but not girls) to wear hats.
Some might dismiss the criticisms I’ve made here by questioning whether men would want to go sleeveless (or not wear a tie in a professional environment).
My first answer is that this is hard to judge. Certainly no men spoke up and hold a similar protest as the women’s one, but it’s difficult to distinguish between men not caring about this additional clothing flexibility in professional environments and men just not expecting it because they’ve never really experienced having it. Also, men are not encouraged to see their complaints or problems as gender issues as much as women are.
My second answer is that it doesn’t really matter how much men want to, because that’s hardly a reason not to let them. For example, the fact that fewer men want to take parental leave doesn’t make it acceptable for a policy to only allow women to take parental leave, and the fact that fewer women want to enter politics certainly doesn’t justify not letting them. The principle of gender equality means that we should want both genders to have the same options, and it’s up to them which options they want to make use of.
3. Other examples
Earlier in the year, former Prime Minister Kim Campbell commented on “how many women on television news wear sleeveless dresses- often when sitting with suited men”, saying that it demeans them and undermines their credibility. I don’t even agree with her idea that showing arms is necessarily demeaning, but I do appreciate the fact that she actually made a comparison to how men are expected to dress.
Global News journalist Farah Nasser replied in a strongly worded article: “It’s really easy. Don’t tell a woman what to wear. Not ever.” (“ANALYSIS: Don’t tell me what to wear Kim Campbell”). She words her statements in a very gendered way, and it’s unclear whether this is because she explicitly decided that only women should be exempt from being told what to wear, or if it’s because she simply did not give any thought to the men’s side and the fact that they’re also often told what to wear, particularly in this context (I would be very surprised if a male newscaster could go sleeveless without comment/criticism).
4. Final thoughts
While dress codes are relatively low stakes as gender issues go, the problem of ignoring men’s issues or the men’s side to an issue applies to higher stakes areas (like gender disparities in the justice system) just as much as it applies to lower stakes areas. This particular incident just happens to provide an example of a broader problem in the modern discourse on gender issues.