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Gendered dress codes are antiquated

Speaker's Corner

On-campus interviewing season is upon us. And with it, there is a new crop of commentary addressing the pressing questions about how to make the best possible impression on interviewers.

Ontario lawyers are conducting interviews for positions at their firms, and prospective students are aggressively seeking good positions.

There’s just one question I wish would stop coming up in conversation: Should female students wear a skirt suit?

You’d think the question might be moot by now. However, some women students have told me that’s the advice some lawyers, law professors, career development offices and older students keep giving them. As a lawyer, I’ve heard a similar message about how to dress for court: “It’s just that judges consider a skirt more conservative.”

On top of this, I’ve been told that some students hear feedback that their hair is unprofessional because it is too long or too short or too curly. They’re cautioned to wear heels but that they shouldn’t be too high. If they wear a skirt, they need to put on pantyhose.

They should wear makeup, of course, but not too much. They should wear nail polish, but it ought to be neutral and it can’t chip. If you look young, try to look older. If you look old, try to look younger.

I think that most people providing these fashion tips have good intentions. They don’t want a smart student to miss out on a good opportunity because she doesn’t know the rules. But I would encourage law students not to take this advice. I would encourage them to wear pants. I love pantsuits.

They are warmer in the winter. They are better suited for running to catch a streetcar.

They make it easier to carry a large litigation bag up and down stairs, which one will likely do a lot of if she gets the job. They are just as professional as skirt suits. Interview days are busy enough without wasting extra minutes in the shower shaving your legs. Your nylons may run.

Pantsuits remind me of Hillary Clinton, in a good way. But if a woman actually prefers a skirt, she should wear one because she will perform better in the interview if she feels comfortable with what she’s wearing.

Not only that, but women deserve a job where they are respected. People who don’t like to hire women who wear pants to job interviews don’t like women. It doesn’t stop on call day.

Those people may judge a woman if the skirt she wears is too short or too long. They may quietly (even unconsciously) penalize her when she takes maternity leave after hire-back.

They may make snide comments about her leaving early to pick up her kid at daycare during her  annual reviews. They will not invite her golfing. They may make inappropriate comments about her shoes, hair and cultural background until she can’t stand it anymore. They may say she is too aggressive or not aggressive enough for the job. There is no pleasing them.

It’s not just men. Plenty of women have internalized the sexist messages they received during their student days.

Our profession has a sexism problem. We have a women lawyer retention problem. We have a mommy-track problem.

In this context, the skirt suit thing seems small, but it’s a big red flag. In saying this, I know that not all students can afford to be picky or to risk turning their nose up at advice just because it’s sexist.

Law school is expensive and it is hard. Some students have families to support. Almost all of them have student debt to pay.

The job market is competitive. If you can’t take a risk, make the choice that’s right for you and your family. But maybe keep your eye open for better opportunities after you’re called to the bar. It’s a long career and you can definitely do better than an office stuck in the 1950s — or 1850s.

That’s why it’s more important that lawyers stop giving this advice and start calling each other out. We need to look at our colleagues and our hiring committees and demand better. Since students don’t have the power to call it like it is, we need to do so.

Tell your colleagues that a preference for hiring women who wear skirts over women who wear pants isn’t “old-fashioned,” it’s discriminatory. It’s contrary to the spirit of the Ontario Human Rights Code, our professional obligations and those personal statements that got so much press this spring. People with these hiring preferences shouldn’t be on your hiring committees.

Lawyers need to be conscious of what our dress codes say about how we feel about women’s place in our offices.

Gendered dress codes (even unwritten ones) disadvantage women, particularly queer women, gender-non-conforming folks, women who adhere to religious modest dress requirements and women of colour. They force us into less comfortable clothing and painful footwear and treat us like window dressing instead of skilled employees.

Manicures, makeup, hair straightening — it adds extra worry, time and expense for students who should be focusing on prepping for interview questions. They make some of us feel less comfortable in our clothes and in our skin.

It shouldn’t be radical for women to wear pants to work or job interviews in 2018. Or flats. Or long hair. Or short hair. Or natural hair. Or your natural face.

Law firms like these don’t deserve good law students like you.

Sarah Molyneaux is a labour, employment and human rights lawyer at Molyneaux Law in Hamilton, Ont. Her practice focuses on gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

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