Quarter of women asked to dress more provocatively for video meetings, survey finds

Experts say sexism is manifesting itself in ‘new and insidious ways’ since the move to remote working

Employers are asking female employees to dress ‘sexier’ and wear make-up during video meetings, research has found.

Contrary to expectations that remote working could reduce the number of reported incidents of sexist behaviour, research from law firm Slater and Gordon suggested sexism has found “new and insidious ways to thrive online” since the start of the outbreak.

In a poll of 2,000 office-based staff working from home during the pandemic, 35 per cent of women reported experiencing at least one sexist demand from their employer since lockdown started in March, with the most common offence being inappropriate comments about the way they dressed for video meetings.

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More than a third (34 per cent) were asked to wear more make-up or do something to their hair, while 27 per cent were asked to dress more provocatively.

A third of both men and women said they had ‘put up with’ comments about their appearance made during video calls that they would not have in person because of the effect the pandemic has had on the jobs market and therefore their chances of finding a different role.

Of those who were told to dress more provocatively, 41 per cent said their boss justified the request by saying it could ‘help win business’, with the same proportion reporting being told it was important to ‘look nice for the team’. Similarly, 38 per cent said they were told dressing up would be more ‘pleasing to a client’.

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Danielle Parsons, an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said it was “categorically wrong” for a manager or someone in a more senior role to suggest a woman dress more provocatively in the workplace, no matter how politely they ask: “Requests of this nature 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.”

Parsons added it was “extremely disappointing” these conversations were still being had, “particularly during this time when women are juggling a multitude of roles from home, and may also be struggling with childcare responsibilities”.

“This is a powerful form of coercion that makes women feel as if they must adhere to the manager’s request and be more visually pleasing to be successful at their job,” she said. “This type of archaic behaviour has no place in the modern working world.”

Of those subjected to such requests, 60 per cent did not report the comment to HR and a quarter agreed to the request. The poll found a third (33 per cent) of women found it difficult to challenge such behaviour – they worried it would look like they ‘couldn’t take a joke’ if they called out the sexism – while 24 per cent said they were concerned about the impact on their career if they refused to comply.

However, while the survey found it was difficult for many women to challenge inappropriate comments made towards them, a third (32 per cent) said they stood up to support a female colleague who was asked to dress more provocatively. In comparison, 26 per cent of men said they stood up for a female colleague in such a situation, while 18 per cent of men admitted laughing off these comments when directed at a colleague (compared to 8 per cent of women).

Nearly 40 per cent of women said these demands were targeted at them or other women, rather than equally with their male peers.