Women, their Clothes and the Workplace
And why everyone feels too comfortable talking about it
Whether it’s jeans or tights, hoodies or tops, or maybe even a simple shalwar kameez and dupatta combination – there is hardly a time when a woman’s workplace attire is not under intense scrutiny.
Most organizations in Pakistan will give employees a code of conduct in which they will clearly outline a list of acceptable and then unacceptable clothing choices. Words such as “appropriate,” “conservative” and “professional” are tossed around to reinstate ideas about what outfits are allowed in the workplace. Whenever these ideals are questioned, employers preach ideas about how maintaining professionalism in a work environment is in part reliant on how employees present themselves to clients. However, it is what is beneath the mask of professionalism and etiquette that is more prevalent when it comes to the degree of scrutiny or unnecessary commentary which is faced by a majority of women in the workplace. This really all boils down to the sexist and exclusive nature of organizations not just within Pakistan, but on an international scale.
Sexism is no stranger to the workplace. Women with a higher degree of experience and skill are often denied promotions that land in the hands of their less qualified male colleagues. Women are accustomed to being asked questions about their personal life when sitting in a job interview – “will you marry soon?” which is then followed by an even more intrusive question “what about children? Will you get pregnant soon?” These uncomfortable conversations are not unknown to most women. It was just the other day that I sat with an ex-student of mine, barely 23 and freshly graduated, where she told me that these same, tired questions were a great area of concern for her boss-to-be. She remarked how small it made her feel, insignificant and reduced to the nurturing and submissive traditional associations of her gender.
Just like her comfort had been transgressed here, many women across the world are currently facing uncomfortable comments about what they wear. You are either conservative or vulgar, plain or overdressed, even too casual or too formal. Choices are taken away, traditional femininity is upheld and for those who are brave or not so easily convinced, ridicule in front of senior management is the next step.
It is a sad reality in which clothes have so much power over how you are perceived. It is even sadder that instead of accommodating women in the workplace, it is easier to replace them with men or more willing female participants. It is easier than reforms that would make it possible for working mothers to have a daycare in their organization or protocols that would protect women from harassment from their colleagues, managers, and customers in the situation that the choice of attire is not strictly in accordance with what is expected. However, what is not easy for these women is not having a choice in how they choose to live or dress. This a common practice in workplaces and in many other aspects of life.