Dress Codes in the Workplace

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This topic isn’t something I’ve thought about much, mostly because dress codes haven’t affected me in my current work setting, and so the issue hasn’t bothered me for a few years now. But my friend, who is studying bio-chemistry on the east coast, recently asked my opinion on something. My friend has large breasts, she works out, and overall is a pretty stellar human being who happens to be gorgeous on top of it all. One day in the lab, it was very warm, as it sometimes is in lab settings, so before putting on her lab coat and getting to work, she took off her long-sleeved shirt to reveal the tank top she was wearing underneath. She thought she was in a professional setting.

She quickly realized that she was not.

Immediately, the men in the room were staring at her. This wasn’t anything new, and given that she doesn’t usually show her figure in such a way, she assumed it would pass as she put her lab coat on and tied up her hair for work. It didn’t pass.

She said she could feel the men talking about her, and feel their eyes on her, and even overheard a few saying things like “Damn.” She caught a few of them and tried calling a few out only to be dismissed. She then tried to focus on her work, feeling uncomfortable. Her instructors and the lab assistants didn’t say anything, and none of the other women said anything either, and tried to make her comfortable, but the feeling lingered. The kicker?

If men wanted to strip and change their shirts in the lab, as has happened, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Somehow, female breasts make workplace attire much more scandalous. I thought about this a lot, and realized that I too have felt the same discomfort, albeit to lesser effect, after finding out that cold shoulder shirts (women’s shirts with cutouts that leave the shoulders and often, the upper arms, bare) were banned at work because men could see “the side of women’s bras when they lifted their arms.” Apparently, covered side boob is distracting. This is the same crock of baloney in a new form.

My opinion on this is simple. If you are in a workplace to work and someone is warm and needs to remove a layer of clothing and is still covered in a way that is comfortable, then what is the big deal? We aren’t in high school. We aren’t talking about who’s hotter or playing “bed, wed, behead.” What I’m talking about is a professional setting. A professional setting where everyone should feel comfortable. And would I call gossiping about someone’s body in the workplace sexual harassment—yes, I would. Sexual harassment is any behavior of a sexual nature from a co-worker that makes someone uncomfortable. A bunch of boys sexualizing your body because you took off your over-shirt to reveal nothing except more shoulder and your arms and maybe the skin around your collarbone? They need to knock it off. Period.

Much like the school dress code issues that have arisen in recent years, such as girls having to wear things dresses and skirts that are “at least fingertip length” and having to wear things that cover their shoulders and hide their bra straps, it is not a girl or woman’s responsibility to make sure that men are not “distracted.” If men are “distracted,” then they need to compose themselves to be professional. My friend did nothing wrong in taking off a layer, but she suffered for it because of how sexualized she became in that moment for her body. All it took was a well-fitting tank top, and I think that’s pretty pathetic.

If men cannot work with women in a professional setting without sexualizing them, then the issue lies not with the women who cannot change their physiology, but with the men who need to change their attitudes and actions. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable in their workplace, one small adjustment to work optimally shouldn’t affect that. Especially when that adjustment has changed nothing about the person you are working with.

Women are people, we are not objects, we are not just for sex or pleasure and even in the moments that we decide to be sexual, we decide. No one gets to make you feel sexualized when you don’t want to be and least of all in a professional setting. You are there to work, your clothing, hair color, make-up, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the work you’re doing it shouldn’t matter to anyone else. All that matters is what you think of yourself and if you are being professional and working to the best of your ability than you shouldn’t have to put up with any kind of sexualization in the workplace.

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