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Let's talk about summer dress code

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Walking into work this morning, I had a specific mission: observe what people were wearing. 🔎


In my very unscientific, anecdotal study of the 40ish people that walked by me I found an interesting trend. Almost every single woman was wearing a dress, shorts or capris. The few women who were wearing pants had ones that were light, loose, and flowy. I noted over half of them had open toed sandals on. That's appropriate given that it was 8am and already getting warm. It's supposed to get to 24°C today. 🥵 I'm wearing shorts and open toe flats, so I get it!


Contrast that image with the men that walked by. Every man was wearing pants – mostly slim fit. And about half of them had on button downs, a few even with suit jackets. 👔👖 I was sweating just looking at them. It's the middle of the summer - and you're wearing pants, a long sleeve shirt, a jacket and presumably long socks. WHY? 🤔🤔


Gender equality but bare-calf inequality?

Of course I know why - James has long bemoaned the discrepancy of what women vs. men can wear to work. We call it the toes privilege. It's a tad ridiculous that I can wear open-toed sandals to work but men can't wear shorts.


Enough is enough! Thinking about all these sweaty-suited-up-men's-legs, I hit my breaking point. I'm ready to pick up this mantle of the oppressed workman. FREE MEN’S CALVES! …AND THEIR TOES WHILE WE’RE AT IT.


Why?

  1. It’s hot as f*ck during summer. 🥵🔥Let people wear what makes them comfortable.

  2. Surely there's some sort of sexism built in there? Women are able to have a summer range in their wardrobes but men aren't afforded the same.

  3. Let's treat adults like adults and let them decide what they can and should wear to do the work they need to do.

*PSA: For those worried about poor James, don’t worry, we have freed all calves at the TTP offices and he wears shorts and tshirts exclusively during the summer (as seen in the photo below)


Some dress code at work stories

At an unnamed government agency I used to work at, most men didn’t wear ties regularly. Except they had to wear a tie when they would go present to ELT or the Board for some reason. One time a senior leader was going to present to the board. He spent a long time doing his financial presentation, but that day forgot his tie. He was kicked out of the board meeting and wasn't able to share the work he did. How bizarre! This only a few years ago.


On the complete opposite end of the spectrum when my youngest brother got his first proper post-uni job, his dress code was two words: Wear Clothes. People wore clothes that reflected their personality and style. And they delivered great work. It’s almost as if we could treat adults like, well, adults!


I'm not a man, so, I sent text messages to a bunch of my male friends, asking them about whether they can or do wear shorts to work when it's warm. Their answers shocked me. Some places had a specific shorts only-allowed-in-January policy. Others were broader - only in summer. But almost all of them said they had to wear pants if they had any type of client meeting. Again, why? I'm still waiting for a good answer.


Set expectations around dress code

When I first moved to NZ and was working at said unnamed government agency, I used to wear a dress or skirt and heels almost daily. that sentence sounds crazy to almost anyone who knows me now and has only ever seen me in tshirts and shorts or leggings.


I've always been casual but had bought into the 'professional dress' myth at first. What changed? I joined the Innovation / Technology group, saw the GM wearing jeans and tennis shoes and started doing the same.


Except for rare occasions. Hilary often jokes that the only time she’s seen me in a dress was during my interview. 👗👠 It's true. After that day, the past four years have been a predictable combination of jeans/leggings/slacks paired with shirt and cardigan. When I’m in the office and not meeting any clients in person, I’ll often wear athletic shorts and some Cleveland branded tshirt.


I’ve asked Hilary many times if it bothers her that I dress so casually (especially because as you all know, Hilary and Dinah are immaculate dressers!) Her response is always the same, Oh don’t be ridiculous! Wear what you want! I don’t care at all...[insert some joke about how I wore a dress and heels to my interview and never again].


The lesson here is we talked about it - and Hilary recognised what I wore didn't impact what I do at work.


Find out what can be flexed about your dress code

Generational researcher, Haydn Shaw, highlighted aspects of work that might elicit generational 'sticking points'. A generational sticking point happens anytime different generations working together would naturally answer a question differently. Dress code is one of them.


Whenever we're thinking about rules or policies at work, it's worth separating out what's a business necessity (cannot change) and a business preference (what can be flexed). He gives a simple way to differentiate between a business necessity and preference:


Business necessity (cannot be flexed) if:

  • it risks people's health and safety.

  • it risks losing customers.

  • it risks losing funding.

  • it risks losing your ability to make money/profit.

So, for example, you can't wear jandals in a factory (H&S). And if you work for a clothing retailer you likely have to wear their brand and clothes (customers and profit).


Anything that doesn't risk those four things is a preference that was set at the time the policy was made. With these in mind, it's worth doing a quick sense check of whether your dress code is full of business necessities or business preferences -- and if those preferences are still relevant.


Redefine professionalism

When I sent those texts to friends, a few people responded back that "shorts aren't professional." Says who?


Professionalism is defined as the competence or skill expected of a professional.


I guess if you're unable to bring your competence and skill to work wearing certain clothes then don't do it. 📷 Here's a photo of James in a typical summer outfit for him. He delivers so much work at The Training Practice and helps keep the company and our programmes going. GASP - AND HE SOMETIMES DOES HIS WORK IN SHORTS!! 😱😱


At some stage someone decided suits equated to professionality and business. Shorts didn't make the cut and aren't professional. Two quick arguments against that line of thinking:

  1. We have billionaires and multi-millionaires who wear sweatpants to work and seem to be doing just fine.

  2. More importantly, many of us worked online during Covid and, as most of us know, we weren't exactly dressing up from the waist down anyways! And weirdly enough, we still got very professional work done! Go figure. Sweatpants have gone professional and there's no going back.

Again, let's strive to let our work, not our clothes, speak for our value, competence and professionalism.


Men: stop being complicit

After talking about this topic and seeing James in shorts, our friend Fred* (*not real name) decided he was going to wear shorts to work the next day. He works in the public sector. Fred said so many people came up to him (mostly men) asking why he was in shorts or if there was a specific reason he was wearing shorts. No one was mad or upset by it, they genuinely wanted to know! Maybe they were jealous of his free legs.


Unfortunately, being a trailblazer can be uncomfortable. And Fred said he felt so uncomfortable about the attention that he decided not to wear shorts anymore.


We can channel some Gandhi here: Be The Change.


I stopped wearing makeup about six years ago. At that time, I complained about the standards and expectations for women at work. Multiple men said to me "If you don't like wearing makeup, just don't wear it." I'd complain that it's just not that easy and start to ramble about gender and beauty biases. At the end of the day there was some truth to what they said. And I stopped wearing it.


Men, if you want to wear shorts during the summer, just do it. People might point it out - but someone's got to start the movement, right? At some point, if you think it's a ridiculous rule, then dont follow it. Is the company going to fire everyone all at once because of dress code? In this market? Probably not.


In short, wear shorts - or don't.

While it might sound like I'm being slightly facetious in this blog, I'm serious about the topic of expectations at work. It's important people know what's expected of them and what they can expect at work. Dress code is one of those areas and it can be a tense subject at work.


My thoughts? Trust your people and treat them like adults; they'll usually act like it. It's your work, not your clothes, that needs to be professional.

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