Shouldergate: Why do we still judge women on what they wear to work?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Tracy Brabin, shadow culture secretary and a Labour party MP, received abuse on social media after her shoulder became exposed during a debate in the House of Commons on 5 February. (Getty)

“Hungover slag” was just one of the comments levelled at Labour MP Tracy Brabin after a recent minor dress mishap in Parliament.

Her offence? As she leaned on the despatch box during a debate in the House of Commons - a result of her broken ankle - her black, off-the-shoulder, mid-length dress slipped down on one side, exposing an extra inch of skin. 

Almost immediately, internet trolls set to work. Some questioned the shadow culture secretary’s “inappropriate attire” for work, but others were more vicious. 

Brabin’s response was concise and cutting: “Sorry I don't have time to reply to all of you commenting on this but I can confirm I'm not... A slag. Hungover. A tart. About to breastfeed. A slapper. Drunk. Just been banged over a wheelie bin.” 

Most people will agree that there are times when what you wear to work may be more important.

For example, if you are attending a formal job interview. But the problem is, research suggests women are often held to a far higher standard when it comes to appearance. The comments Brabin received were far more vitriolic in nature than when Jacob Rees Mogg was spotted lounging horizontally on a front bench with his feet up. 

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Whether it is because of their clothes, shoes or hair, women are endlessly scrutinised - and it’s a problem that affects all women in the workplace, not just those in the public sphere. Not only is it unfair, it directly affects their careers, too. 

According to a 2016 study by researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Irvine, women who put more effort into their appearance often make more money. On the other hand, though, women who are perceived as putting too much effort into the way they look are seen as less qualified, a 2014 study found. Women are not only more likely to be judged on appearance, but they are still expected to stay within certain boundaries. 

While it’s true that men are also assessed on the way they look, research indicates that women experience this kind of workplace discrimination most often. A study conducted by skincare company Univia discovered key insights about appearance-based discrimination, including an indication that women and younger generations were more likely to become a victim of appearance-based discrimination. Nearly one-third of women surveyed admitted to experiencing questionable treatment at work related to how they look.

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Of the nearly 1,000 employees surveyed, a huge number felt under pressure to change the way they looked to avoid being discriminated against. The majority – 65% – of employees had worn nicer work attire to fit into their workplace. Fifty-three percent also wore nicer shoes, and 48% got a haircut to accommodate workplace culture. A further 39% had to choose a new hairstyle completely, 37% started to wear makeup, and 34% tried to improve the way their skin looked. 

Perhaps most worryingly, 59% of those surveyed said they had benefited from their appearance at work - and more often, this happened to women and younger employees. 

Women are also far more likely to be assessed on their weight, which affects their pay and chances of career progression. According to research published earlier this year by LinkedIn, workers classed as obese are paid £1,940 ($2,457) less per year than their colleagues, with women classed as “overweight” or “obese” — according to their BMI — receiving £8,919 less on average each year than their male coworkers.  

Researchers also found that almost a quarter of workers (21%) who are overweight felt they had been passed over for a job or a promotion because of their weight. 

One of the key reasons why we are more likely to judge women on what they wear or what they look like is because of gender bias. In 2017, a study by the Saint Louis University School of Law found that workers and job candidates are often perceived and rated by how closely their features fit with typical “feminine” ideals.  

“One of the primary factors that determines a person’s subjective evaluation of attractiveness is the extent to which the person’s appearance is in compliance with their perceived gender,” the researchers wrote. “When a job candidate’s perceived masculine or feminine characteristics are not in line with the perceived masculine or feminine nature of the job, gender bias results. This is known as the ‘Lack of Fit’ model.” 

Unfortunately, unfair treatment because someone is overweight or because of the way they look is not specifically protected under the Equality Act 2010, according to Acas, which provides legal and workplace relations advice to employers and employees. The treatment would have to be linked to one of the features of life specifically protected under the Equality Act, such as their sex or because they have a disability.

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To address the issue, therefore, employers need to challenge their own beliefs about appearance - and consider both conscious and unconscious bias that may be directed at women.