Earlier this week, MPs – mostly wearing suits, knee-length skirts and 3in courts – debated the case of Nicola Thorp, a temporary PA who was sent home from her job at PricewaterhouseCoopers because she refused to wear heels. The equalities minister, Caroline Dinenage, called on employers to their dress codes and reform any offices still persisting with a “dodgy 1970s workplace diktat”.
Being forced to dress in ways that our health and on equality rights is appalling, and ways of holding employers to account must be made simpler. But how many of us, without official work dress codes, have paused in front of the mirror to ask: “Is this appropriate for work?” I know I have.
Before starting at my current job, I remember trawling Oxford Street looking for new clothes. What was wrong with the clothes I owned and the thousands of pounds worth of items I’d clung on to over the years? They just didn’t smart enough, or that they’d the type of person I wanted to be seen as: essentially someone who could do the job. But why wasn’t my experience and ability enough?
Without official markers of rank, clothing has become our social, cultural and economic indicator. It is the most immediate measure of who we are, informing others of our mood that day, preferences, influences, spending habits, and confidence. An ironed T-shirt can the impression of someone who lives an ordered life, as well as someone who cares enough to own an ironing board. Wearing the latest trend can as someone who is forward thinking and creative or, less favourably, someone unconcerned by the ethical implications of fast fashion.
But of course it can get much darker than that, especially for women. If we show too much skin, are we somehow not treating the office seriously enough? According to professor Karen Pine, author of Mind What You Wear, if women dress “provocatively” – short skirts and tight-fitting clothes – they are judged as being less good at their jobs.
Given that most people have an affinity for people like them, unconscious bias – the instinctive blind spot created by a person’s own experience – is a convincing explanation for why similar people roles with people similar to themselves.
A survey of 2,000 people found that those who dress like their boss are more likely to be appointed and get promoted quicker. Dr Iris Bohnet, who studies unconscious bias, says that those in hiring positions should a checklist, and not rely on “factually dubious impressions” such as gut feelings.
But if we’re ambitious people, should we along with the rules of unconscious bias? Should we start dressing like our boss or like the people we want to be? Or should we continue to express ourselves however we want to?
We all hold biases and assumptions, but we should try our hardest to remove them in the workplace. Not only to avoid treating colleagues unfairly and, at worst, holding someone back. But at the same time, we must not ourselves back by conforming to unspoken dress codes. Most of us spend a huge amount of time at work, and dressing in ways that don’t feel right to us is a shame.
If we are being held back because of our appearance and the unconscious bias of others then we must take the people to blame to task. out, on Monday I’ll be wearing a thigh-skimming backless dress, velvet slippers and my hand-knitted scarf that says “I heart cats”. And guess what, I’ll still be able to do my job.