Sex and the (Univer)City | Women at B.C. Legislature call out archaic dress code

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A farewell to arms?

Carrie Bradshaw may have claimed New York as her turf, but did you know we have our very own sex columnist right here at UVic?

When getting started on a project, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.” This idiom indicates there’s some tough work to be done. However, it isn’t meant to be taken literally — at least not at the B.C. Legislative Assembly. Show too much arm there, and you may be accused of violating the dress code.

A few weeks ago, a government communications staff member — who has worked in the Legislature since 2014 — was reprimanded by a security guard because her cap-sleeve blouse was deemed unprofessional, says Blair*, a recent UVic graduate who works at the Assembly.

The employee was told “she could not be in the Speaker’s Hallway because she was not wearing sleeves — this was due to an interpretation of a ‘dress code’ for the Legislature,” Blair explains.

The following day, many of the people in the press gallery who identify as women came to work with sleeveless tops in protest, posting pictures on social media with the hashtag #righttobarearms.

The dress code isn’t new and has been enforced since its inception on July 21, 1980.

“All three parties tweeted out photos of MLAs and staff in short sleeves,” says Blair.

After the hashtag went “B.C. viral”, Speaker Darryl Plecas released a memo on March 28 regarding Parliamentary Dress. The memo stated that the dress code isn’t new and has been enforced since its inception on July 21, 1980.

“This dress code from 1980 is evidently not applicable in the legislature today,” says Blair.

Darryl sent out another memo the following Monday which Blair says was much better. In it, he explained that the rules aren’t new and they weren’t arbitrarily imposed by him. Darryl went on to write that he wasn’t endorsing the existing dress code in his previous memo, but rather outlining it “to provide clarity on certain rules.”

Blair says that up until the week of April 1, it was “very common for people of all genders to have their dress commented on by the legislature staff.” It’s a formal setting, Blair explains, and legislative staff would frequently go around asking people to cover up when the government was in session.

The issue, says Blair, is that the dress code was arbitrarily enforced, and often people who identify as women were the only ones being called out, because people who identify as men often just wear a suit.

“It’s pretty humiliating to be called out in your place of work and chastised for what you’re wearing,” says Blair.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she grew up poor and still has a tight budget? She must be lying because she wears nice business clothes for her job in Congress.

After reading the memos and talking to Blair, I couldn’t help but wonder, what is this fixation on the clothing that female-identifying politicians wear? People who identify as women get comments on their appearance all the time, but it seems like something different when it comes to politicians. It’s like people use these individuals’ clothing choices to tear down what they’ve said they stand for.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she grew up poor and still has a tight budget? She must be lying because she wears nice business clothes for her job in Congress.

“The problem comes in when the media or the public focuses on clothes in ways that belittle or demean the women wearing them, or when women are held to standards of dress or appearance that don’t apply to men,” writes Anna North in an article for Vox.

These comments are common for people in politics. “I have often had people comment on my appearance — particularly comments such as, ‘you look tired’,” says Sonia Furstenau, the Cowichan Valley MLA and member of the Green Party of B.C.

Sonia posted a photo to Twitter on March 28 using #righttobarearms and chimed in on the situation. She described a time when one of her staff members was told to put on a slip under her dress because the dress was clinging to her legs as she walked.

“Heaven forbid people realize she has limbs under her skirt!” she tweeted.

The women working in the Legislature are there to do their jobs, says Sonia, not to follow outdated dress codes.

“I would very much prefer that people focus on the work or task at hand, rather than on a person’s appearance.”

Sonia says that appearance-related comments aren’t “necessarily restricted to women and minorities, but it may be more prevalent”.

People who identify as women get reprimanded for their clothing in schools, workplaces, government buildings, campaign trails (e.g. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits), and a myriad of other places.

The goal, she says, should be to shift the collective focus off the appearance of individual politicians and on to more important things: policy, and the future.

When the focus is on the appearance or the personal life of politicians, their work isn’t given the recognition it deserves.

So, I found myself wondering, who is benefitting from this distraction?

“It’s important that we continue to discuss and wrestle with these issues.  Women need to be recognized for the work we do, for our contributions, for the policies and ideas we bring to the table,” says Sonia. “When we focus instead on a woman’s appearance, or how a woman is dressed, we diminish the value of the contribution being made.”

It’s possible that those who stand by the dress code are doing so in an effort to keep a professional environment. But in doing so, they are restricting people’s choices, passing judgement on their appearance, and ignoring the fact that the people working in the Legislature should be able to police themselves when it comes to professional attire.

“I think there is a conflating of tradition and customs,” says Sonia. “However, we can improve and modernize these because we are now in a much more diverse environment today than it was when these guidelines were established.”

According to Sonia, a Legislative Committee is currently reviewing the dress code. Any changes will be the first since 1980.

As the great Carrie Bradshaw once said: “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice who you are just because somebody else has a problem with it.”

People who identify as women get reprimanded for their clothing in schools, workplaces, government buildings, campaign trails (e.g. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits), and a myriad of other places. And women everywhere — including in B.C. — are saying they’ve had enough.

As the great Carrie Bradshaw once said: “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice who you are just because somebody else has a problem with it.”

These people are still doing their jobs, getting their homework done, and working on policy for  their constituents — and their attire isn’t getting in the way of that.

So, like Rosie the Riveter, let’s roll up our sleeves, show off our scandalous arms, and get to work.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to respect the individual’s privacy.