Gender neutral dress codes: Why (and how) to create one

Gender neutral dress codes are essential to any inclusive workplace. Use our tips (and our infographic!) to write yours.

Cartoon image of two people in pants writing a gender neutral dress code

We need gender neutral dress codes in the workplace. If you don't yet agree with that statement, look no farther than a 55-page presentation given to women executives at Ernst & Young in a June 2018 training.

The presentation, which made headlines when an offended participant leaked it to the Huffington Post, reinforced gendered stereotypes of how women should dress and present themselves at work. Some highlights (which are actually lowlights, in terms of equality in the workforce):

  • A list of "appearance blunders" for women to avoid, including no-nos like "too-short skirts," "plunging neckline[s]," "bottle blonde," "flashy jewelry"
  • Outfit and grooming suggestions to "minimize distractions from your skills [sic] set" like "good haircut, manicured nails, and well-cut attire"
  • Advice on how to dress: "Don't flaunt your body — sexuality scrambles the mind"

The women, there to invest in their professional development, were not learning how to be better leaders or combat sexist stereotypes at work, but instead were being lectured about what to wear and how to groom themselves.

While the presentation wasn't the official E&Y dress code, it does highlight bias and assumptions made around gender that women have to manage. And this particular training focused only on the male-female binary. Employees who identify as transgender or nonbinary often stand to feel even more burdened by dress code policies that are based on gender.

Imagine how much more productive all employees, regardless of gender, could be if they weren't focused on avoiding the kind of dress code policing described below.

The problem with gendered dress codes at work

Dress codes and gender identity & expression

Outdated, sexist dress codes that dictate attire based on gender don't just hold cisgender women to unfair standards. (Recall, it wasn't until 1993 that women were allowed to wear pants on the U.S. Senate floor, and the Senate continues to struggle with gendered, discriminatory dress code policies). These policies also create significant obstacles for folks whose gender identity or gender expression falls outside of the binary and/or differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Too often, gendered dress codes force these individuals to dress in a way that's inconsistent with their gender identity, something that's been the subject of lawsuits.

Dress codes and race

Traditional gender-based dress codes can also discriminate on the basis of race. Many grooming guidelines for women, including rules on acceptable haircuts, amount to extra burdens for Black employees, particularly those who want to wear their hair in natural styles. In 2010, Chastity Jones got a job offer to be a customer service representative from Catastrophe Management Solutions — but the offer was contingent on her cutting off her locs. When she refused, the company took back the job offer, and when she sued, with the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she lost her case in 2013 and again in 2016, when her appeal was dismissed.

Dress codes and religion

Beyond forcing women of color to maintain their hair in a way that's deemed acceptable by White, Eurocentric standards, gender-based dress codes can also discriminate against people of certain religions. Employees whose faiths keep them from cutting their hair or necessitate that they wear certain clothing (including head coverings) shouldn't be forced to adapt their beliefs to what their employer deems professionally appropriate for work.

The need for more inclusive dress code policies

The possibility for gender-, race-, and faith-based discrimination posed by prescriptive employee dress codes has led the Human Rights Campaign to recommend that "if an employer has a dress code, (they) should modify it to avoid gender stereotypes and enforce it consistently. Requiring men to wear suits and women to wear skirts or dresses, while legal, is based on gender stereotypes.” Alternatively, the HRC says that professionalism in dress can be stipulated without bringing gender into it, giving examples like “suits must be worn to meetings with clients” and “employees with hair below the chin must tie it back when near or operating machinery.” We’ll go through some more examples below.

What is a gender neutral dress code?

So, you’re thinking that gender neutral dress codes sound good. What do they look like?

A gender neutral workplace dress code is, in its simplest form, communication from an employer about what that employer considers to be appropriate workplace attire, without including any gender- or gender identity-based rules or guidelines. Rather, the dress code specifies genderless guidelines that are based on some combination of: permitted or not permitted articles of clothing, desired style of dress (whether casual, business casual, or formal), and in many cases, employees’ own common sense.

A simple and effective gender neutral dress code policy example

In their simplest (which, in my opinion, also means best) form, gender neutral dress codes at the workplace can take the form of General Motors' dress policy. When now-CEO Mary Barra was VP of global human resources for the automotive giant, she replaced their 10-page dress code with two words: "Dress appropriately."

In doing so, Barra avoided gendered assumptions and affirmed her faith in employees’ sense of judgement when dressing themselves. Not only was it a move that positively impacted many women, trans, and nonbinary workers in particular, it’s also just a great example of doing away with outdated workplace policies that are both patronizing and unnecessary. Of her decision, Barra later said: “I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them. But, if you let people own policies themselves — especially at the first level of people supervision — it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things changed our culture powerfully."

Gender neutral dress code examples from high schools

For workplaces that need more specificity about what employees can wear, HR could follow in the footsteps of other types of institutions that have successfully adopted gender-neutral dress codes, including high schools.

After a wave of protests, social media outrage, and thoughtful advocating, many schools have revamped their dress codes, which tended to put undue burden on girl, nonbinary, and trans students. New guidelines being put in place today apply to all students, regardless of their gender identity. For example, instead of specifying the length of skirts versus shorts or the width of a cami strap versus a tank top, a Virginia high school's new gender-neutral dress code simply defines what must be covered: "Clothing [must] cover areas from one armpit across to the other armpit, down to approximately three to four inches in length to the upper thighs."

How to write inclusive, gender neutral dress code policies at work

Spell out specific dress code rules by article of clothing, not by gender, use non-gendered pronouns, and make sure that any grooming guidelines could apply to anyone. Don't place burdens on anyone based on their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or cultural identity, and try to empower employees to manage their own appearance in accordance with professional expectations.

Business casual dress code examples

For business casual workplaces, try this, adapted from Forbes: "Employees should dress in business casual attire, which could include casual slacks and skirts, collared shirts, blouses, or sweaters. Inappropriate attire includes sportswear, jeans, and unkempt clothing, among other options. Please exercise good judgment."

Formal dress code examples

For business formal workplaces, you could use the following: "Traditional business attire, including dresses, suits, and pantsuits, is required for external meetings with clients or prospects. Employees should use discretion on other occasions and are expected to demonstrate good judgment."

Casual dress code examples

And for casual workplaces, which are on the rise — according to a 2023 Gallup survey, 41% and 31% of workers, respectively, go to work in either business casual clothing or in their street clothes —go with something simple, like this, adapted from The Balance: "Dress comfortably for work, but please do not wear anything that could offend your coworkers or make them feel uncomfortable. That includes clothing with profanity, hate speech, or exclusionary language. Your clothing, while casual, should show common sense and professionalism."

More examples

  • “Clothing should be clean and in good condition, free of holes, tears, or rips.”
  • “Employees should exercise good judgment when choosing their clothing.”
  • “Clothing designed for working out/athletic apparel is not allowed.”
  • “Examples of acceptable casual attire include, but are not limited to: shirts/tops consisting of casual shirts, polo shirts, blouses, or sweaters.”

A note about grooming

In some workplace environments, policies about hair and jewelry may be required for safety reasons, but should remain sensitive to religious or cultural practices. “Hair below X length should be tied back for safety reasons” is a good gender neutral policy example that avoids dictating hair length or style. Keep in mind that dress code policies that do specify length or type of hairstyle may inadvertently discriminate against people of color, or those who cannot cut or alter their hair for religious reasons (and this could include facial hair, as well). Consider leaving grooming policies out, or deferring to common sense in order to have a more modern and inclusive dress code policy.

No matter the level of formality your dress code needs to define, make sure you're thinking from the perspective of all employees — current as well as future — and creating an environment where everyone can thrive.

Want to share these tips with your company? Show them this handy one-page guide on creating a gender neutral dress code!

Gender Neutral Dress Code Guide

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