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Government Relations

Ontario Human Rights Commission – (OHRC) – Information On Dress Codes

OHRC policy position on gender-specific dress codes

Some Ontario employers require female employees to dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way at work, such as expecting women to wear high heels, short skirts, tight clothing or low-cut tops. These kinds of dress codes reinforce stereotypical and sexist notions about how women should look and may violate Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

Sexualized and gender-specific dress codes are all too common in some restaurants and bars, and can be found in other services. Whether in formal policy or informal practice, they contribute to an unwelcome and discriminatory employment environment for women. Female employees may face scrutiny to make sure they are abiding by the dress code, and may experience employment-related consequences for failing to dress or wear their hair, make-up or jewelry in a particular way. Employees may feel pressured to agree to sexualized dress requirements to get a job or because they fear losing tips, shifts, or even their jobs.

To read more click here.

Dress Code checklist for employers – Removing barriers based on sex and gender

This checklist can help organizations make sure that their dress codes and uniform policies are consistent with Ontario’s Human Rights Code protections relating to sex and gender, as set out in the OHRC’s Policy position on sexualized and gender-specific dress codes.

Dress codes/uniform policies should:

  • Allow for a range of dress/uniform options, for all staff in all front-of-house positions.
  • Not require any staff to wear sexualized, revealing or gender-stereotypical clothing.
  • Make sure that all staff can choose from clothing options, including pants, that are comparable in terms of style, comfort, practicality and coverage, regardless of sex or gender.
  • Offer uniform sizes that fit a wide range of body types. 
  • Make all dress code options available by default, rather than only offering certain options by request.
  • Not include grooming or appearance rules or expectations for women that are more onerous than those for men, or that are sexualized or based on stereotypical ideas of female attractiveness.
  • Allow for a range of hairstyles, and not require a specific hairstyle unless it is a legitimate requirement of the job (e.g. food preparation).
  • Specify that applicants or interviewees cannot be asked to identify what kind of uniform option they will choose to wear until they have been given an offer of employment.
  • Include processes for handling dress code-related accommodation requests and complaints.
  • Be communicated with and freely available to all staff.

For more information on dress code and other employment-related human rights issues, see Human Rights at Work 2008 - Third Edition

Examples of sexualized dress code requirements:

Examples of gendered and/or sexualized dress code requirements or expectations that may violate the Human Rights Code: 

  • High heel and/or uncomfortable shoe requirements for women, while men are allowed to wear tennis shoes or other low-heeled options.
  • Women staff required to wear revealing skirts or dresses, such as: short hemlines, low necklines, sleeveless tops, very tight-fitting and/or thin fabric.
  • Women not allowed to wear pants, given a pants option not equivalent to that for men (such as yoga pants vs. jeans), or told they can’t wear pants in certain roles or locations (such as hosts, or servers in lounge areas).
  • Women staff being prohibited from covering up:
    • Required to have bare/exposed legs: prohibited from wearing stockings or pantyhose, tights and/or leggings under dresses/skirts.
    • Not allowed to wear another layer (sweater, jacket, long sleeves) with revealing outfits, or limited as to when or where they may do so.

These rules subject women to different standards and impacts than men, and may exclude staff based on creed (religion) or disability.
  • Grooming and appearance standards for women that are more onerous than those for men, and/or sexualized or stereotypical based on gender, such as:     
    • required to wear makeup, jewelry and/or nail polish
    • required to wear hair down, in a particular style, or not in braids or dreadlocks. In addition to linking to sex, gender identity, or gender expression, these may exclude certain staff based on religion, race, ancestry, or sexual orientation.

  • Only offering gendered or sexualized outfit options up front (such as scoop-necks, sleeveless tops, mini-dress/skirt), so that staff must specifically request other options (higher neck, long sleeves, pants or longer skirt).
  • Providing women’s uniforms only in smaller sizes
    • This excludes women of larger size based on sexualized expectations
  • Telling women staff what underwear they should or can’t wear: such as being told not to wear a bra, or to wear thong underwear.
  • Pressuring women to wear sexualized dress to be hired, to get preferred shifts, more shifts/hours, or to work in specific positions or locations.

Sexualized and gender-specific dress codes Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is the OHRC focusing on this issue?

We have been aware of this issue for many years. In November 2015, concerns started appearing in the media – raised initially by servers in a CBC Marketplace inquiry - about restaurants with dress codes that require female servers to wear short skirts, tight dresses, high heels and low-cut tops to work.

This media inquiry provided us an opportunity to restate our long-standing position on sexualized dress codes. The new statement, issued on International Women’s Day, is an opportunity to spread this message even further. We collaborated with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC) to inform employees about their rights. Even though they may be commonplace and normalized across the restaurant industry, sexualized dress codes reinforce stereotypical and sexist notions about women. Human rights decisions dating back to the 1980s have found these to be a violation of human rights laws.

Other forms of sex discrimination and sexual harassment are also very common in restaurants, and these dress codes may make women more vulnerable to sexual harassment by customers, management and other staff.

Our focus on this issue is a “call to action” to employers to review their dress codes and remove discriminatory requirements. Employers make themselves vulnerable to human rights complaints if they do not.

To read more click here

Backgrounder: sexual harassment and sex discrimination at work (See Question #7 re. designing non-discriminatory dress codes)

Sexualized dress codes are one example of the many types of sex discrimination that working women face. Sexual harassment is a specific form of sex discrimination. A 2014 survey indicates that three-in-ten Canadians experience sexual harassment at work.[1]   

In its 2013 Policy on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment, the OHRC recognized the severe impacts of sexual harassment on working women and trans people. It can reduce employees’ morale, decrease productivity and contribute to physical and emotional effects such as anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. The United Nations’ Declaration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women states that sexual harassment is a form of violence against women. Sexual harassment and violence reflect negative attitudes about girls and women. Inappropriate sexual behaviour (sexual jokes, innuendo and unwanted gestures of “affection”) often develops over time and, if left unchecked, may progress to more serious forms.[2] Physical or sexual assault may be the culmination of ongoing acts of harassment.

To read more click here

OHRC presented to the ORHMA Board of Directors on the topic of Dress Codes in the hospitality industry on October 18th, 2016. To view presentation and speaking notes, click here.