Dress code policies often separate employees by gender. They also typically single out women and women-assumed people by policing their attire more harshly. But queer and trans people shouldn’t have to adhere to gender norms to maintain the appearance of professionalism.
At the retail store that Bruno, a queer man, works at in Arizona, there’s a gender neutral dress code policy. “My employer offers the same selection of uniform apparel to all employees, regardless of the item,” he says. “The level of respect that my coworkers treat me with has been unaffected by the fact of whether I’m wearing a miniskirt or a four-piece suit. It’s a very inclusive work environment where everyone seems to focus on the quality of your work as opposed to the items of clothing on your back.”
By avoiding gender stereotypes, workplace dress codes can accommodate people in the LGBTQ+ community and relieve us of the burden of norms that make us feel like we can’t be ourselves. While employers have the right to set guidelines on what we wear when it concerns our safety or maintaining a professional image, it’s more complex than that. Dress codes with more flexibility can help us to celebrate our identities, whether we’re gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
How Work Dress Codes Affect Us
“I have had many experiences in which my work dress code was used to stifle my identity and expression,” Scottie, a non-binary trans person says. “I had been written up in a six-month review for not appearing ‘professional’ enough,” they added. “When I pressed them for more information, they gave me examples of things I could do to ‘improve’ my professionalism. All of [the suggestions] were specifically related to me having a more femme presentation, including makeup, dress slacks, and even my shoes, despite me wearing the exact same clothing as my cis-male coworkers. I’d like to see policies that remove gender from the table altogether. Business casual can incorporate all gender-presentations inherently.”
The Human Rights Campaign’s “A Workplace Divided” study found that 46 percent of queer and trans employees are closeted at work. Additionally, one in five LGBTQ+ workers have been told or had coworkers imply that they should dress more feminine or masculine aligning to the “traditional” gender norms. Only one in 24 non-LGBTQ workers faced the same discrimination.
We’re Better Workers When We Can Be Ourselves
“When my more masculine clothing was tied to a ‘lack of professionalism,’ I caved and purchased more femme pants and shoes so as to not further upset my employer,” Scottie says. “I was extremely uncomfortable, felt not only exposed but erased or hidden. The gender dysphoria made my workdays miserable, and it bled into my daily life as well. My interaction with my patients and clients was subpar because I was hyper-focused on how uncomfortable I felt with my appearance and how I had to carry myself to compensate.”
Bruno is a better employee and colleague because he can express his LGBTQ+ identity at work. “Having a baseline of respect that never changes based on what I’m wearing has helped me thrive in my work environment,” he says. “I feel empowered to follow my intuition and trust my instincts,” Bruno adds. “I’m super fortunate to be working in a very open and inclusive work environment.”
Inclusive Dress Codes Benefit Everyone
The clothes we put on for work, uniform or otherwise, serve as an extension of who we are. When employers eliminate barriers that keep us from expressing who we are, we have more space to bring our full selves to work and can better focus on our jobs. At Micron Technology, Inc., the dress code policies set “basic” ground rules for how employees should dress: professional, clean, and tidy. Micron places trust in their team by allowing their workers to interpret what is and isn’t suitable attire.
“Micron wants our team members to be comfortable and their true selves,” Susi, a team member advocate at Micron, says. “People are really good at knowing how to dress for their role. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last ten years when it comes to people feeling free to be themselves in a workspace.”
Susi serves as a layer of support by assisting team members who are considering transitioning and resolving any LGBTQ+ discriminatory issues. “Being able to dress more comfortably helps people with their creativity and collaboration,” she says. “They’re not fussing with their clothes or worrying about whether they have to wear a uniform that doesn’t suit them.”
Important Things To Remember When Creating a Workplace Dress Code Policy
- Allow employees to dress authentically and comfortably
- Create rules that focus on articles of clothing rather than on gender and grooming standards that could be applied to any employee
- Avoid mandating employees to wear clothing that enforces gender stereotypes and set guidelines that allow them to choose how they present
- Use non-gendered language, like “dress appropriately” and “appear clean and tidy,” if employers want their employees to appear professional
- Place trust in their employee’s sense of judgement (which empowers employees and leads to better collaboration and work!)
Workplace dress codes greatly impact our mental well-being, how we collaborate with our colleagues, how we interact with customers, and the work we produce. That’s why, as a community, we need policies that allow us to be our authentic selves in what we wear. We work better when we work together.
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About the author
Our Editorial Team is composed of our leaders, clinicians, and care coordinators, as well as other Included Health employees, all who are working to raise the standard of healthcare for everyone. Together, they combine decades of subject matter experience across all fields of healthcare.