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The pitfalls behind gender neutral workwear

By Aileen Out


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The stewards and flight attendants received badges from Alaska Airlines to make their form of address clear. 'She/her', 'He/him' or 'They/them'. Credits: Alaska Airlines

The days when a workwear package consisted of a separate set for men and ladies is long gone. From 2023, more and more companies are opting for gender-neutral workwear. Many consumers are applauding the move because this potentially will put to an end the sexist approach to workwear. The starting point is that everyone is treated equally, exactly what we are so striving for in the current era. But this new trend has a hidden price that is higher than many can predict.

Gender-centric dress code is not permitted

Although there had long been discussions within various organisations about a gender-neutral approach, most companies only started implementing it in 2021. The trigger was a ruling by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organisation that advocates for the rights of US citizens, in relation to a case between Alaska Airlines and its employee Justin Wetherell. As a flight attendant and flight attendant instructor Wetherel, who considers herself non-binary, noticed that the company made a distinction between uniforms for men and women. ACLU reprimanded the airline on the grounds that, from a legal perspective, it was not allowed to enable employees to choose between male and female business attire. Also, a distinction between dress codes, such as requiring or not requiring cosmetics, was found not to be allowed. This falls under gender-based discrimination.

Credits: Alaska Airlines

Soon, the statement became world news. Although everyone knows that you cannot discriminate in the workplace, people had not until then thought about discrimination in workwear. After this news, slowly more and more companies began switching to a unisex clothing package. It also fits well at a time when traditional gender roles and stereotypes are being re-examined. ‌

Airlines change policy

To date, it has mainly been airlines that have been rolling out new packages and adjusting dress codes. After all, they have seen what negative publicity has caused among their peers. The Icelandic airline Play launched a unisex line in 2021 with jumpers, trainers and T-shirts. In doing so, they took into account not only employees' rights, but also the current trend of casual clothing. A few months later, Canada's Flair also came out with a new package. From the outside, you mainly saw simple women's and men's pantsuits. But the company assured the public that the approach was gender-neutral: everyone was allowed to wear what he, she or they were comfortable with or liked.

Icelandic airline Play launched a unisex line with sweaters, sneakers and T-shirts in 2021 Credits: Play
The Canadian Flair opted for this new workwear package.Credits: Flair
It now seems almost unusual for an airline to opt for gender-specific corporate clothing. The new workwear at Japan Airlines, the Australia's Bonza, and Westjet Airlines in Australia is also now gender-neutral.

Some organisations are not yet ready for a new outfit, however, and are therefore adapting their dress codes. At British Airways, male pilots are now allowed to wear make-up and fake eyelashes, and Alaska Airlines further decided to adjust its regulations after the public slap on the wrist. A year after the ACLU ruling, the company introduced badges on which the employee's preferred form of address is displayed. There is a choice between she/her, he/him, they/them or a combination of these. Employees are now also allowed to choose what they wear themselves and the regulations on external grooming are (almost) completely gender-neutral.

Equality in the workplace

When launching a new collection of corporate clothing or modification of a dress code, a press release is often sent out. This is the time to highlight what the company stands for and, nowadays, gender-neutral is a major theme in this respect. This shows the value placed on inclusivity. Although there are opponents, the general public seems mostly happy about this.

Even organisations that announce that they are working on this, as was the case with KLM last February, are receiving high praise. Fashion designer Addy van den Krommenacker told Dutch TV show Op1 during an interview that he was a supporter of these new plans. At the talk show, all the attendees at the table shared his opinion. An end to the distinction between gender was seen as a step towards more equality in the workplace.

Back in history

While airlines are in the process of doing away with gender-focused uniforms, the workwear industry is actually working to make more distinctions between men and women. The companies that make these clothes know from experience that a gender-neutral approach is not a formula for success in many cases. When you have to work many hours every week in company clothing, it is crucial that it fits the body well. Since men and women have different body types, these clothes also require a fit that suits the gender.

For years, unisex collections were used in various industries. For example, until the new collection was launched in 2019, ambulance workers wore clothing that did not discriminate on gender. At many factories and in the tech industry, this is still the case. ‌

The new clothing for ambulance personnel.Credits: Aileen Out

Employees take their own seats behind the sewing machines

The result is that the clothes do not fit women especially well, as unisex clothes almost always assume the male body. The fit is straight and does not allow for curves. When trousers fit ladies at the hips, they are too big at the waist. Meanwhile, the legs are often too long and the sleeves and shoulders of the outerwear are too roomy. At the breasts, there is too little space, causing pinching and tension on the fabric, as well as on the buttons and zips.

Clothing that is too long creates an immediate danger in the workplace. Sleeves and trouser legs can get caught behind something. When trousers are too wide at the waist, there is an opportunity for wood and iron chips, chemicals or other materials to get between the body and the clothing. In addition, the employees concerned are constantly engaged in manually holding up the trousers, which likewise hampers work.

Some companies choose to collect specific parts of a garment. Or employees even take a seat behind the sewing machine. In the latter case, there is a great risk that a discussion will arise about the appearance and maintenance of uniformity. Because everyone has yet another idea of what is representative and appropriate within the company.

It is a good solution for the short term, but offers little future prospects. After all, clothing that does not account for friction, wear and support in certain places cannot possibly offer the same comfort as with the opposite sex.

The future of gender-neutral workwear

To date, most companies opting for a gender-neutral approach have not yet seen any reason to deviate from it. No significant incidents have yet been reported and there has also been no vehement opposition from staff.

In the short term, companies are also reaping great rewards. They receive praise from the general public and therefore good PR. The cost for buying unisex uniforms are often also lower than when gender distinctions are made. Also, organisationally, it saves a lot of work. After all, the more compact the collection, the clearer it is.

With safety and comfort in mind, it is likely that the gender-neutral policy around workwear will look different in the future. Equality will be achieved by giving employees the individual freedom rather than a lack of a gender-oriented clothing package. Consider one dress code for all staff and a free choice between garments. After all, that is also exactly what the ACLU pointed out: you should not force staff to choose between one item of clothing or a regulation based on gender.

That does not mean, therefore, that there should be no corporate clothing that makes a distinction between men and women. A distinction will always be there and clothing should match that. It is freedom and equality in which a balanced path must be found.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit: Rachel Douglass.