by Valerie Johnson

Can dressing improperly at work threaten your security in your job? Ask Nicola Thorp, a woman who was sent home on her first day at work at an accounting firm because she refused to wear heels. Or ask the female meteorologist who wore a tank dress on screen and was given a cardigan to cover up by the male anchor. Or the men who, facing extremely hot weather, decided to wear skirts when they were told that shorts violated the dress code.

Dressing for work can be a minefield. Women and men want to avoid crossing the line when it comes to dressing professionally. But there are often office dress codes or religious preferences telling us what to wear to work. And does the new landscape of sexual harassment shaming mean that we no longer blame the woman for “asking for it” when she is harassed and wearing sexy clothing?

It is no secret that most people dress more casually than in past decades, even at work. Even some of the most conservative jobs have ditched suits and ties for khakis and polos. But while the requirement to dress formally may have changed at your place of work, most people want to look nice and professional while at work. Many people think that if your clothing makes others uncomfortable, you ought to dress differently. They reason that if your look makes people squirm, it is going to hurt you in
your profession.

But some dress, especially religious clothing, does make others uncomfortable. The Constitution protects the free exercise of your religion. Federal and state laws makes it clear that most employers have to accommodate religious dress if it is not a burden to the business. So a woman can wear her hijab at work even if the qualifying employer does not like it, so long as it is not a safety hazard.

Sometimes employer requirements make employees literally uncomfortable. Women have been asked wear heels and hose to work by businesses from law to banking to accounting for a long time. Can the employer require its female employees to do so? The answer lies in the laws that protect women—and men—at work.

Employers may be requiring a certain type of dress for legitimate business reasons, such as to keep their employees safe, or to project a certain business image. Expectations should be clearly drawn. Dress code rules should be applied to men and women men equally. For example, everyone can be required to dress in business formal attire. But if women must wear pumps, men should not be allowed to wear runn ing shoes.

Dress requirements must also allow for disabilities. For example, a woman who has a back problem should be exempted from the requirement to wear high heels. Employers usually don’t have to allow for individual preferences. But employers may run into trouble with anti-discrimination laws if a person does not dress like people in their gender usually do, and the employer disciplines or harasses them.

Women often feel the sting of societal expectations in their dress. When a female meteorologist wore a figure-flattering dress, she was criticized on social media for by a viewer who thought the dress was too small. It ignited a social media fire for and against the meteorologist. Compare that reaction to what happened when a male anchor wore the same suit for a year on camera and got not a single  comment.

The #MeToo movement has brought issues of sexual harassment at work to the front page of the newspaper. Some have accused women of dressing too sexy for work and bringing on their harassment. A popular exhibit started in 2013 called “What Was She Wearing?” displays the clothing that women wore when they were sexually assaulted. The clothes included in the exhibit range from work uniforms to jeans to body-covering religious robes. The conclusion: what you wear doesn’t excuse sexual assault or protect you from it.

So what is the savvy employee to do when faced with issues of dress at the workplace? The woman sent home for wearing flats started an online petition saying that it should be illegal for employers to force women to wear heels. Though Nicola Thorp gathered 152,000 signatures the British government did not agree. Women in the UK can be required to wear heels, just as they can in the U.S. Workers should know that evenly applied requirements for dress are okay under the law. But a note of caution also applies how we may judge workplace clothing; women may not be secure, regardless of the way they dress.