Why are women still dealing with comments about their appearance while working from home?

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Moya Crockett
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Video call with male and female colleagues

New research shows that more than a third of women have been asked to put on more make-up for video calls while working from home – while over a quarter have been asked to dress more “provocatively”.

For many women, one of the small pleasures of the last few months (and goodness knows, we’ve had to take the wins where we can) has been the reduction in appearance-based pressures. Fashion and beauty can be joyful, creative modes of self-expression, but they can also be burdensome and oppressive if we feel obliged to live up to certain standards – whether those standards are explicit, such as formal workplace dress codes, or implicit, such as the unstated expectation that we’ll wear make-up in the office.

Modern home working, in contrast, has allowed us all to experience the delights of attending meetings in tracksuit bottoms or skipping mascara for weeks at a time. That is, at least in theory.

Because according to new research, a disturbing number of UK women have in fact found themselves subject to sexist expectations regarding how they present themselves while working from home. A new study by law firm Slater and Gordon shows that more than a third of women have been asked to put on more make-up or redo their hair for professional video calls during lockdown, while over a quarter have been asked to dress more sexily or provocatively.

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Of course, the most satisfying way to respond to such demands would be with a swift middle finger to the camera. But while a third of women who took part in the survey said they called out the comments as inappropriate during the meetings, a further quarter said they were anxious about how refusing to acquiesce to their employer’s demands could harm their career. The majority (60%) did not report the requests to dress more provocatively to HR.

Video call with male and female colleagues
"Why don't YOU go and put on a bit more lipstick, Colin?!" (Picture posed by models)

The survey consulted 2,000 people who had previously worked in offices, but are now working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Slater and Gordon’s report into the findings said they showed that workplace sexism has found “new and insidious ways to thrive online”, even as many physical offices remain closed due to the coronavirus shutdown.

“It is categorically wrong for a manager or anyone in a position of power to suggest, even politely, for a woman to be more sexually appealing in the workplace,” said Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Danielle Parsons.

“This is a powerful form of coercion which makes women feel as if they must adhere to the manager’s request and be more visually pleasing to be successful at their job. This is demeaning to women.”

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Nearly 40% of the women who took part in the survey said that demands about their appearance were aimed at them or their female colleagues, rather than equally with male co-workers. Parsons said that appearance-based requests “are discrimination and unlawful where male counterparts aren’t treated in this way, or where such unwanted requests create a humiliating or degrading environment for women”.

“It’s extremely disappointing that we are still having these conversations, particularly during this time when women are juggling a multitude of roles from home, and may be also struggling with childcare responsibilities,” Parsons continued. “This type of archaic behaviour has no place in the modern working world.”

Images: Getty Images