The Politics of Pantyhose

The politics of pantyhose. The philosophy of flip-flops. The tyranny of the tie.

However you want to accessorize it, workplace dress codes and how people interpret them can be one of the more apparent ways that diversity springs up in the workplace.

Many employees "poo-poo" diversity as an issue, if they have never felt that they’ve been on the receiving end of a problem. For many, it just doesn’t resonate with them as a workplace priority. However, the quickest way to suddenly feel your individuality threatened or challenged within the midst of a corporate structure is to have the new dress code policy mention a rule that goes against your fashion grain. Usually, when you see stories in the press about dress codes involving a formal complaint, it relates to how the policy impacts a group by race or religion. However, as with many issues of diversity, it’s the subtle undercurrents that make waves.

Take pantyhose (or to paraphrase an old joke, PLEASE take pantyhose), for example: the issue of whether a particular workplace requires female employees to wear pantyhose when they wear skirts or dresses may seem silly on the surface, but it can be representative of larger issues that directly relate to perception for female employees.

Is someone going to run to a Human Resources Department and complain that one of their female employee isn’t wearing pantyhose? In most cases, no. But thousands of women file sexual harassment and discrimination complaints or lawsuits every year. In some cases, it’s a generational issue where younger generations have less rigid standards about what comprises suitable work attire. In other cases, it’s a matter of regional differences. For example, women who work in the Miami office of a company probably worry much less about this issue than women who work in the Minneapolis office of the same company.

It also varies by profession: when I was a newspaper reporter many years ago, for example, I don’t distinctly recall even owning a pair of stockings. But when I became an attorney, and worked for a large law firm, it was unthinkable to forego stockings with a dress or skirt in the environment I worked in.

Where it can become a diversity issue— or, worse case scenario, a discrimination issue— isn’t about situations where woman employees make their own choices about whether to wear bare legs. No, it becomes a diversity issue is when a particular workplace feels as if it is engaging in a double standard and dress code policies— both formal and informal—seem more like an attempt to lock women in to conscripted roles.

Again, it’s about subtle perceptions and where those perceptions lead you. Back in the 90s, one of the pop culture discussions that crossed into the workplace was the length of Ally McBeal’s skirts. As a television character who played a skinny lawyer taking her bare legs to work in tiny mini-skirts, the character of Ally McBeal (played by actress Calista Flockhart) challenged the status quo. What her attire symbolized for women in the workplace was a real lightening rod, redefining what was appropriate behavior and dress for a professional woman.

Flockhart’s character even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1998 with the headline "Is Feminism Dead?" This, of course, had the implication that her wearing of short skirts somehow set back the movement of women’s equality in the workplace.

And least anyone think that only television characters and fashion mavens give thought to skirts and pantyhose, the Wharton School of Business recommends that the length of skirts and dresses be no more than three inches above the knee for a woman to have a professional appearance— and that she wear pantyhose.

In other words, a lot of thought goes into thinking about what people wear in the workplace.

Any guide to creating dress codes policies will emphasize the importance of being fair and consistent. But as countless discussion/complaints/lawsuits show, fair and consistent can be a moving target when it comes to deciding if flip-flops on Casual Friday should be allowed. For human resources professionals, however, it is important to make sure that not only are the policies themselves fair, but that individual supervisors enforce them in a fair and consistent manner.

So, while pantyhose and other dress code policies may seem like a trivial and humorous issue, it can provide great breeding ground to feel out more profound issues of diversity in the workplace.

Heck, if nothing else, just talking about the culture of clothes in a relaxed setting might be a good way for managers and supervisors to get a more candid idea of how their various employees view the workplace in general—especially if you hear "patriarchy" and "pantyhose" in the same sentence.