Tuesday, February 03, 2009

My take on topical news items of the day

So recently, (Sunday? Saturday? Monday?) there was breaking news about a memo which had been sent round to all female Bank of England staff, prescribing a very specific and dare I say it traditional, dress code. It stated things like women should wear make up at all times, wear heeled shoes (but not higher than 2 inches), wear skirts and not trousers, and do not under any circumstances wear ankle chains or they will be mistaken for prostitutes. All this stuff must be followed so that women look professional and increase their chances of success in their job.

On Radio 4 on Monday morning they had a lady from the Fawcett society explain why this memo was a load of offensive crap, and also Trinny from Trinny and Susannah giving her two cents. I didn’t quite follow what Trinny had to say as it was too early in the morning and I was groggy, but I believe she was talking about how clothes etc can lift your mood, increase your confidence and affect how others perceive you.

Now if that is what she was stating (and someone correct me if I’m wrong) then on the surface I agree with it, she’s right, clothes and appearance do do all that. But that is not the issue here; the issue is that an employer is allegedly (see later*) prescribing a very specific and traditional dress code that ties into gender norms and views about what is acceptable for women to wear, in order that they look professional and will be taken seriously so being able to advance in their career.

It intimates that if you don’t do the above then you won’t be successful. This in turns reinforces the view that women’s value lies in their looks - if we do not present ourselves in a conventional and acceptable manner, that is, conforming to a standard idea of what is pretty, then we won’t be successful. Nevermind what our performance or quality of work is like, if you don’t dress yourself up for the male (and often female) gaze, none of that matters.

If, heaven forbid, women were to wear 3 or 4 inch heels to work, or wore too much makeup (if anyone can decide on what too much is), would they be viewed as too sexual? If they don’t cover up their boobs to the neck would their very bodies be deemed to be too sexual (merely by existing)? Or if a woman chose to wear no make up, does this mean she’s not playing the game? What if she doesn’t remove facial hair? Obviously she doesn’t want male attention, she must be a dyke.

All this make up and heel stuff, it relates to women as sexual commodities – you’ve got to tread a very thin and precarious line to be acceptable.

Either of the above 2 scenarios upset our perceptions of what the ideal woman is like. It threatens our cosy little world where men achieve and women are eyed up.

This may seem like I’m reading too much into what is just a professional code of conduct, sent round by the company bosses. Except that nothing was sent to the men in the company – not that I expect men to receive instructions on makeup and heels, but an appropriate equivalent would be to filter down instructions re hair length, matching socks and ill fitting clothes. This means that whoever wrote and devised the note is policing women’s appearances only, and that’s where it gets fucked up and feeds into the issues I have talked about above. *If* the note came down from top management then I think that’s sexual harassment.

*I say if because on an article the F Word did today covering this, one of the commenters posted a response to an email he’d sent Bank of England bosses and it read thusly:

"Dear Mr Woosey

Thank you for your enquiry and comments on this matter.

Can I state categorically that media stories about a Bank of England dress code or advice about dress for women are wholly inaccurate and misleading. The Bank has issued no such advice, nor is there a memo from the Bank on the issue.

The facts are that an informal lunchtime gathering was organised by a women's staff group at which an external company presented their ideas about building confidence. The session was provided free and had nothing to do with the Bank's management. A list of ideas about dress was circulated by the consultant. Most Bank staff will not have seen this and those that have are free to treat it as they wish. Some members of our staff might hold views similar to your own. Like many organisations, the Bank simply requires staff to wear smart business attire.

I hope that this clarifies the situation following the unfortunate media reporting of this matter.

With kind regards

Malcolm Shemmonds

Public Information & Enquiries Group"

If that’s true, thank god for that. There is a world of difference between having the CEO sanction a dress code that refers only women thus playing into crappy stereotypes about women’s perceived sexual status, and a confidence building seminar on how to dress for success. My initial points still stand, all the advice given does play into very traditional gender roles, but it’s about the difference in power relations. This seminar was optional, women chose to attend and they will choose whether to take the advice or not. I for one hope they don’t because I think it’s bullshit, but it isn’t an official mandate and as such is a lot less dodgy.

I now want to see the Bank of England issue a statement along the lines of
“We don’t give a stuff how our female employees dress, we care about their performance. Feel free to be hairy legged and flat footed and make up free if you so desire! Or cake on the slap, wear a short skirt and continue to produce good work! If any of our clients have a problem we’ll give them a good talking to!”

Think it’ll happen? Yeah right. I can dream.


Sea_of_Green said...

They didn't also require women to wear those awful plain blouses with the frilly neck scarves, did they? Boy, I'm glad those went out of style before I entered the workforce. :-P

If anyone tried to pass a dress code like that in a publishing company, they'd be laughed out of the building. Jeans and t-shirts are practically the norm!

SallyP said...

As a former banker, I can say, that a dress code doesn't surprise me, although my experience was some twenty years ago.

Tellers could pretty much wear anything, except jeans, but if you were on the floor, or an officer, you HAD to wear a skirt and hose. I was in the loan dept. so, I word a skirt every day. Men also had to wear suits, and ties, so it wasn't just the women.

Things do seem to have loosened up considerably since then. I was at the bank the other day, and the male teller was wearing earrings and a T-shirt. I'm still not convinced this is progress.

Saranga said...

Turns out that it wasn't a dress code, more a recommendation of how to dress to feel confident.
Me, I'm most confident and relaxed in jeans and a t-shirt, but I guess I'm not the target here..
Roll on the day when we can all go to work pierced up to the eyeballs and wearing whatever we like!