Ontario Human Rights Commission calls for end to skimpy dress codes

The Ontario Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner says employers must make sure their dress codes don't reinforce sexist stereotypes.

Agency says women should not be sexualized to attract clients

The Ontario Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner says employers must make sure their dress codes don't reinforce sexist stereotypes. (CBC)

Women who work in restaurants and bars should not be forced to wear high heels, short skirts and low-cut tops, human
rights activists said Tuesday, calling for an end to sexualized dress codes for female workers.

"Excellent customer service doesn't have a cup size," said Kathy Laird, executive director of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre in Toronto. "I hope women will call us for legal help if cleavage is deemed an essential skill in their workplace."

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) issued a policy paper on gender-specific dress codes Tuesday to coincide with International Women's Day, calling for an end to clothing requirements that discriminate against female and transgender workers.

The move follows an investigation by CBC's Marketplace into skimpy uniforms that some restaurants require their female staff to wear.

"Employers must make sure their dress codes don't reinforce sexist stereotypes," said the OHRC's chief commissioner Renu Mandhane. "They send the message that an employee's worth is tied to how they look. That's not right."

Women should not be expected to dress in a sexualized way to attract clients, the commission said in its policy paper, which also pointed out that "unequal treatment" is still a daily challenge
for women at work.

"This treatment is often visible in bars, restaurants and other services that require women to dress in high heels, tight dresses, low-cut tops and short skirts," it said.

"These dress codes persist across the restaurant industry, despite human rights decisions that have found them to be
discriminatory. They may make employees more vulnerable to sexual harassment, contribute to discriminatory work environments and exclude people based on sex, gender identity ... or creed."

The commission also said sex-based dress codes undermine women's dignity, and may make them more vulnerable to sexual harassment from other staff, customers and management.

'Frank conversations'

Ontario Women's Issues Minister Tracy MacCharles said women should feel empowered to complain about any issues they may have with a dress code at work.

"They should have frank conversations with their employer because the more we have those, I think the better," she said.

"I was really pleased to hear that a number of them are really reasonable in terms of their guidelines for female waitresses, in terms of the length of a skirt. They don't, for example, require them to wear stiletto heels and things like that."

Rather than forcing companies to make changes through legislation, MacCharles said she'd rather talk about the good
employers who have addressed the dress code issue to help educate others.

"My hope is that these restaurants will be progressive, that they will provide reasonable parameters for dress codes that are respectful," she said. "I imagine their patrons will be absolutely fine with that."

There's nothing wrong with companies wanting wait staff to wear uniforms or have a standard look in how they dress, added MacCharles. "It's very important that women be respected in the workplace,
equally as men."

Restaurants Canada, an industry association, declined comment Tuesday, and directed reporters to its website, which says male and female staff uniforms should be equivalent or similar in terms of style and design.

"Ensure your dress code complies with provincial human rights legislation," it says. "Ensure that your dress code allows for cultural and religious accommodations, such as head scarves and hair styles."

Hooters U.S. parent company did not respond to requests for comment on the dress codes in its restaurants across Canada.