Business

'It's a human rights issue': Women fight for the right to be braless on the job

B.C. woman filed a human rights complaint over demand she wear a bra at work

September 01, 2018

Christina Schell filed a human rights complaint in B.C. after she says her employer unjustly required she wear a bra on the job. (submitted by Christina Schell)

The "burn your bra" movement is back, this time ignited by young women shunning the undergarment not for political reasons, but in the name of comfort. 

However, some braless women feel discomfort when managers mandate they must wear one in the workplace — a rule that could be deemed discriminatory, because it only applies to one gender.

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"It's unnecessary," said Kate Gosek who works as a cook at McDonald's in Selkirk, Man. The 19-year-old says several managers recently harassed her about not wearing a bra, including one who prodded her shoulder in search of one.

"She just told me that I should put on a bra because, McDonald's — we are a polite restaurant and no one needs to see that."

Some employers want women to wear a bra in the workplace, although that rule could be deemed discriminatory because it only applies to one gender. (Getty Images)

Whether or not employers can mandate a woman's undergarments is now the subject of a case before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. A hearing date has not been set yet. 

It was prompted by a complaint from Christina Schell who claims her previous employer — the Osoyoos Golf Club in Osoyoos, B.C. — discriminated against her by requiring that female staff wear a bra.

"It's gender-based and that's why it's a human rights issue," she said. "I have nipples and so do the men."

For her protection?

Schell discarded her bras more than two years ago because she finds them uncomfortable.

"They're horrible," said the 25-year-old who took a job as a server at the golf club's restaurant in May.

She says she had no inkling being braless was an issue until a few weeks later when she received the restaurant's new dress code. It stated: "Women must wear either a tank top or bra under their uniform shirt."

Because she served tables at an outdoor patio in hot weather, Schell had no desire to wear an undershirt, either.

"It was absurd," she said. "Why do you get to dictate what's underneath my clothes?"

Christina Schell's employer required that she wear a bra or tanktop under this uniform shirt. She refused to comply. (submitted by Christina Schell)

Schell confronted the golf club's general manager, Doug Robb, and said he told her the rule was for her protection.

"He said, 'I know what happens in golf clubs when alcohol's involved.'"

Schell refused to comply, and said she was fired as a result. That prompted her to file a human rights complaint. 

Robb declined to comment, stating in an email that employee matters are confidential.

Nadia Zaman, an employment lawyer, says gender-based dress codes could cause problems for employers. (submitted by Nadia Zaman)

Employment lawyer, Nadia Zaman, said employers can impose a gender-specific dress code, if they can show there's a genuine occupational requirement, such as for safety reasons.

She questions how requiring an employee to wear a bra can fall into that category.

"If they simply require that female employees wear a bra but then they don't have a similar requirement for males, and they can't really justify that … then there is a risk that their policy's going to be deemed to be discriminatory," Zaman said.

She refers to the Ontario Human Rights Commission which, following a 2016 CBC News Marketplace investigation, called for an end to sexist dress codes — such as high heels and short skirts — which only apply to female staff.

"They're basically saying that sexual harassment and gender-based dress codes are off the menu, and they're no longer being tolerated," said Zaman from the firm Rudner Law in Toronto.

'An expectation'

Gosek, the McDonald's employee, also feels she has the right to be braless in the workplace, despite instructions from managers to wear one.

She said one manager advised her to put one on, while looking at her chest.

"She told me they're distracting."

Gosek said when she pointed out to another manager that the McDonald's dress code says nothing about wearing a bra, he replied, "'No, but it is an expectation.'"

McDonald's said Kate Gosek hasn't violated any rules by refusing to wear a bra at work. (Associated Press)

Gosek also finds bras uncomfortable and says the pressure to wear one at work made her anxious.

"I'm a really good worker but all of this is making me look like a bad person."

McDonald's Canada clarified that the dress code policy doesn't require Gosek to wear a bra.

Spokesperson, Laura Munzar said in an email that Gosek's troubles were the result of "a misunderstanding in the application of the policy" and that the restaurant would inform her she's not breaking any rules.

Gosek said she received an apology this week from two superiors at work.

As for Schell, she's still waiting for the outcome of her human rights complaint to find out if wearing a bra in her case was a justifiable work requirement.

"It doesn't affect anybody's ability to do their job," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris
Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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