One of Canada's largest chains of casual dining restaurants will change its policies about clothing worn by female serving staff following an investigation into allegations of sexism in the industry by the CBC-TV program Marketplace.

Vancouver-based Earls said in a statement Tuesday that female serving staff will now have more options for what they wear to meet their own comfort levels.

"Men and women may choose varying heel heights from a walking shoe or short boot. Many of our female servers do choose to wear high heels. At this time, if they wish to, they are permitted as long as the shoes meet the safety requirements of a closed heel and toe," the chain said.

"Although our female service staff have a choice in what they wear, we understand that even our suggested dress code could be considered discriminatory as, although pants are allowed on request, the current suggested dress code is a black skirt, no shorter than one inch above the knee for women.

"We should be wording our suggested dress code as a black skirt, no shorter than one inch above the knee — or a straight cut plain black pant," Earls said.

The chain also said it hopes to have a dress code policy soon for all servers — male or female — with the same suggested style, and that this "plan has been in place for some time."

Contentious issue

The decision follows a series of stories from Marketplace last week that found widespread complaints within the restaurant industry from female employees compelled to wear outfits — including high heels, tight skirts and heavy makeup — that sexualize them for the chain's benefit.

CBC had requested comment from four chains cited in the original stories — Moxie's, Jack Astor's, Earls and Joey Restaurants — to see whether dress code changes were under consideration. They have not yet replied, though Earls released its statement.

'I hope women will call us for legal help if cleavage is deemed an essential skill in their workplace' – Kathy Laird, human rights lawyer

Marketplace spoke with dozens of female staff of restaurant chains, past and present, who spoke out against the dress codes.

"The dress is so tight that you can see your underwear through it," says a current employee of Joey Restaurants, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job.

"I was often told that I needed to show more skin. I was 17 years old. No 17-year-old should be getting in trouble for not showing enough skin," another woman said.

Human rights concerns

The statement by Earls on Wednesday also follows a policy position paper released the same day — on International Women's Day — by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

The commission says that such sexualized dress codes discriminate against women and transgender people. "Employers must make sure their dress codes don't reinforce sexist stereotypes," chief commissioner Renu Mandhane said. "They send the message that an employee's worth is tied to how they look. That's not right, and it could violate the Ontario Human Rights Code."

The executive director of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre agrees, saying such policies may violate Canadian law in some cases.

"Excellent customer service doesn't have a cup size," Kathy Laird said. "I hope women will call us for legal help if cleavage is deemed an essential skill in their workplace."

Solidarity in Ottawa pub

On Wednesday night, male servers at Ottawa restaurant Union Local 613 donned miniskirts and high heels in part to show solidarity for women who are required to project a sexy image on the job.

But co-owner Ivan Gedz said he's also hoping to combat some of the stigma surrounding people who do opt to wear skimpy attire.

He said the complexity of the issue was brought home to him by patrons who criticized the move, falsely believing he was trying to shame people who choose a more provocative approach to dress.

"In my ignorance, I just assumed it was obvious that the sleazy part was the mandating of this dress code by people, not the dress code itself," he said, adding that staff of all genders should be free to wear what they please on the job.

With files from The Canadian Press