Maggie Berry: Dress codes, patronising or practical?

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With Gen Y firmly established in the workplace, traditional dress codes are largely a thing of the past. For women, “smart” no longer necessarily translates to a black skirt suit (below the knee) and a white blouse, and chinos and a shirt are often considered relatively smart for men.

However, with the departure of dress codes comes a new and murky area. Where does smart end and inappropriate begin? And is it patronising to enforce rules around these grey areas?

The dress code question is particularly hazardous for women, where the scope to get it right, and to make mistakes, is much wider. “Smart” is also subjective. While many would consider a floral dress and blazer to be smart, others would disagree.

So is a dress code really necessary to help women to navigate these unspoken rules, or does it patronise women to assume that they cannot choose appropriate clothing?
It seems there are four ways to go. The first is to let the idea of a dress code go altogether and to allow employees to wear whatever they deem to be appropriate. The second is to impose a strict dress code that details exactly what people have to wear. The third is a “wear what you want within reason” policy, detailing what is and isn’t acceptable. The fourth is to only have a dress code for client meetings.

If you do go with the first option and choose to have no official dress code, then be aware that enforcing one “as you go” may be seen as unfair and bring down morale. It may also make woman feel singled out, particularly if there is a policy surrounding length of skirts or something similarly subjective. It can mean that unspoken rules only apply to some. If there’s nothing written down, it’s best not to enforce policy that doesn’t exist.

Having a strict dress code is equally dangerous as it can feel draconian and restricting. It can be interpreted as a total lack of trust in employees and can lead to resentment and a more formal culture than you may have intended.

The third option seems to be a happy medium, but it has to state clearly where the boundaries lie. For example, it’s insufficient to state that “short skirts” are unacceptable. It’s better to specify what “short” means. That way people are free to make their own judgements but know where the line is between appropriate and less so.

The most important thing about any dress code is to be consistent. If you single somebody out for breaking said dress code, regardless of whether it’s implicit or explicit, then that could be interpreted as discrimination. A dress code has to apply to everyone, from MD to intern, otherwise it will breed discontent and is not worth enforcing.

In almost all cases, employees are quite savvy and can be trusted to choose their office attire wisely and what’s acceptable differs from industry to industry, even from office to office. With that in mind, everyone has a different approach, but the most important thing is to be fair. Good luck!

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About Maggie Berry

Maggie Berry, Managing Director, Women in Technology

Maggie Berry is Managing Director of Women in Technology, the career site and recruitment service dedicated to increasing the number of women working and achieving in IT. She has been involved since Women in Technology’s inception in the autumn of 2004 and manages all aspects of the website and the networking activities Women in Technology organises.

The network now has nearly 7,000 members and the job board is helping a wide range of investment banks and technology firms to recruit more women into their IT divisions. Her background is in technology recruitment within the financial services where she spent four years as a recruiter with McGregor Boyall Associates. Prior to this she worked for NatWest as a Graduate Banking Manager, providing financial advice to final year university students and graduates. Maggie is a graduate of the University of East Anglia.

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  1. In my view quotas are not the answer – it could result in ‘tokenism’ and a two-tier board. I disagreee with Viviane Reding to some extent as self-regulation is atarting to bring results, albeit too slowly. The issue has been entrenched for decades and there is no quick fix. There is now evidence to demonstrate that a balanced board delivers shareholder value and it is this that will drive the improved balance, not a quota system.

    As Maggie Berry writes, the issue is multi-facetted and women also need to be mentored as well as working on their own presence and visibility. I sat next to a clever, well qualified and obviously competent female manager at an event last week who said that she wan’t ready yet for a board position. Her experience would beg to differ but she did not have the confidence to feel ready.

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