In the news today is a 200-year-old French law that’s just been overturned for being, basically, outdated and pointless: A ban on women’s trousers. Though it hasn’t been seriously observed for quite some time, France finally decided to strike the old law, designed (when it was written) to keep women out of certain job opportunities.
This strikes me as interesting—not just because it gives me an excuse to show the picture at left—but because the issue of sexual equality in the workplace has always set me off by its obvious imbalance.
In the United States, for instance, women can dress in the workplace in ways that are obviously designed to showcase their prettiness and sexuality (see photo above); a man is only allowed to (very privately) compliment a woman on her appearance if the woman has unilaterally decided it’s okay. If she decides it’s not okay—even if she says it’s okay today, but decides it’s not okay tomorrow—the man can be fired, with no further questions asked, within the scope of the law.
There is no corresponding opposite situation. Women are rarely stigmatized or threatened with firing if they tell a man they look good. (In fact, most men live for such compliments.) Men are not permitted to wear clothing designed to showcase their sexuality at work (which I would define as muscle shirts, tight pants, shorts, exercise wear or anything other than the standard shirt and trousers or suit). Such men’s wear is not considered “businesslike” at any rate; if you wear that, you’re considered to be obviously not serious about business. But a woman in a tight-skirted suit (no tie) and 3-inch heels is considered “dressed for success.”
Why this obvious imbalance? Because, despite laws, despite intentions, men and women simply do not consider themselves “equal.” The physical differences between men and women tend to trump equality in the workplace: Women generally feel physically threatened by men, especially in the workplace which is generally considered to be controlled ultimately by men, and any unsolicited comment is therefore an implied threat by those who control the workplace; and men do not generally feel threatened by women, so any unsolicited comment is considered harmless, even if undesired. Also, we have repeatedly demonstrated that we are not all “adult” enough to discuss sex in the workplace, to ignore unsolicited offers for sex, or to avoid using sex as a tool to influence people or improve job prospects.
I’ve written this subject into a few of my novels. I’ve often postulated a workplace world in which women, either from a practical decision or because of popular fashion pressure, finally decide that skirts, heels, makeup and skin-baring tops were the primary things keeping them from being treated equally in the workplace. They finally adopt the same sexually-neutered shirts, trousers or suits and sensible shoes typically worn by men—the “business uniform,” only slightly recut to compliment (but not accentuate) the female figure.
I’ve also suggested that, when (if) we ever go to space, and find ourselves spending more time on low- or no-gravity situations, occasionally floating above (and below!) each other, skirts will become even less practical, and outright scandalous; at which point, they will become all but verboten in “serious workplace” situations. We already see the trend to avoid skirts in work areas that feature open catwalks, for obvious reasons. And you won’t see skirts on any of the astronauts going to the International Space Station.
It’s possible that, as workplace sensitivities evolve, the days of skirts in the serious workplace are numbered. Other fashion elements that are clearly intended to accentuate sexuality, like heels and makeup, may go with them. Is that a bad thing?
I realize that men and women like to look good, especially to others (and including in competition with others), wherever they can. But the dichotomy between what is acceptable for men to do and display, and what is acceptable for women to do and display, should be removed from the workplace as much as possible in order to foster true equality.
I don’t want to suggest that everyone needs to wear the same 1984-style shapeless grey jumpsuit in the office. But fashion should reflect an intent to do our work… not to work on our workmates’ libidos. Besides, there are other places to show off our sexuality, and I’m sure that in non-workplace venues, it will always be an “anything goes” world.