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Freezing Offices Are Just the Beginning of Sexist Workplace Norms

The workplace was originally oriented around men, and that remains largely true today even though women claim half of the workforce. Consider office temperatures, a subject of much discussion of late. The Washington Post's Petula Dvorak detailed the plight of D.C. women in summer, "the time of year desperate women rely on cardigans, pashminas and space heaters to make it through the workweek in their frigid offices. And their male colleagues barely notice." Less than two weeks later, The New York Times reported on a new study that found most office buildings rely on an old formula from the 1960s to determine the ideal temperature. The short of it: Thermostats are programmed around the needs of a 40-year-old man who weighs 154 pounds.

This was back when just a third of women worked. Today, women make up nearly half of the labor force, and a little more than half of managerial and professional employees. Yet air conditioning is still being blasted into offices as if women weren’t there. Room temperature, however, is just one of many office norms that revolve around men but persist to this day. Some are year-round and can't be solved with a Snuggie—like unequal professional dress codes, which were similarly cemented decades ago.

Men’s white-collar work wear has long constituted a suit for formal offices, or a collared shirt and slacks for business casual. Then women entered the picture, many of them secretaries and assistants. At first, they were expected to wear feminine clothing—heels, gloves, stockings—to the office; masculine clothing was so taboo in 1960 that Lois Rabinowitz, a secretary, was ejected from a courthouse in New York City after showing up in slacks and a blouse. As women began to gain positions of prominence and prestige in the 1970s, they wanted to show it in their clothes. But the apparel of the powerful remained suits and ties, so women tried to adapt that style to their needs. They tried out giant bows on their shirts in place of ties. They put jackets over dresses and skirts. The power suit emerged with huge shoulder pads meant to make a woman look more masculine. 

Women now have the pantsuit, adapted to their bodies and often ditching the collar and tie. But rules of dress are still treacherous. A half-century after Rabinowitz was thrown out of the courtroom, Morgan Briesmaster, a reporter with the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, was barred from entering a courthouse for wearing a high-necked but sleeveless blouse last year. This year, Sylva Stoel was sent home from her job at J.C. Penney because her linen shorts were supposedly too revealing—shorts that she had bought at J.C. Penney.

Men’s rules may be stricter, but they are simpler and clearer. What exactly was Briesmaster supposed to wear? When do shorts show too much skin? Many companies have attempted to delineate the boundaries, but rarely with success.

In “Presentation Tips for Women,” big law firm Clifford Chance told its female employees they shouldn’t “dress like a mortician” and should “wear something special” but “not your party outfit.” No cleavage, but no turtlenecks; heels but definitely not stilettos. And Hewlett-Packard ruffled feathers with a new dress code telling men not to don shirts without collars, shorts, hats, or open shoes. Women, on the other hand, were told to avoid “short skirts,” “low-cut dresses,” “crazy high heels,” and “too much jewelry.” 

At what length is a skirt considered short? What height must a heel reach to be crazy? How many necklaces before someone will tell you it’s too much? And who exactly decides? Sociologist Lisa Wade says for women deciding what to wear to work, “it's about occupying and traveling within a certain space… usually between ‘proper’ and ‘flirty.’ Women have to constantly figure out where in that space they’re supposed to be… [W]omen constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone.” They’re playing by rules drafted for men and only barely updated for them.

These issues may sound trivial when you consider how pregnant employees are discriminated against, and that only 12 percent of Americans get paid family leave when they have a baby. But air conditioning and dress codes, in their insidiousness, are also dangerous. Women’s clothing can change how employers view their performance—more masculine choices lead to better chances of getting hired—and cold employees are less productive and effective. This is not even taking into account how office temperatures might dictate how female employees dress. On a larger level, these male-centric office norms are constant reminders to women that they are still outsiders in the workplace. Most men aren't even aware of how enviable it is to know exactly what to wear to work without risk of objectification, embarrassment, and, of course, hypothermia. The default employee is a male in a suit. Women have to be shoehorned into that picture, and they’re failing to fit.