With so much hot news swirling around, some may have missed the story of the Arctic research mission MOSAiC’s dress code. Apparently, women on board the ship were told not to dress in tight-fitting clothing, and specifically no leggings, no crop tops, no short shorts, no hot pants and “nothing too revealing.” The leader of the mission apparently felt that this was a “safety issue,” as “there are a lot of men on board this ship … and some of them are going to be on board this ship for months at a time.” Ah hem.

It’s been reported that the dress code policy followed allegations of sexual harassment made by several women on the ship.

“Dress Less Sexy!” An Appropriate Response to Complaints of Sexual Harassment?

Management of the ship claim that the dress code policy pre-existed any sexual harassment complaints and was in place for reasons related to “hygiene” and “occupation safety” and “mutually respectful conduct.” They also claimed that it applied to everyone on board, not just women.

Some women on the ship found themselves in a difficult position of not having sufficient policy-abiding clothing with them aboard the ship. Obviously, they couldn’t just have Amazon deliver them sufficiently baggy pants!

We have blogged about dress codes and targeted rules regarding dress in the past. Having a dress code in and of itself is not the problem, but targeting specific groups – either directly or indirectly – is. In this case, women were singled out, which would violate laws prohibiting unequal treatment based on sex.

Another issue with this policy was that it, seemingly, was a response to harassment complaints. Dealing with inappropriate behaviour by the men on the ship by placing the responsibility on the women on the ship to be less sexually appealing was not appropriate.

Under Canadian law – which varies depending on jurisdiction – employers will generally have a duty to investigate harassment complaints and to take measures to remediate the situation should the complaint be substantiated. Those remediation measures should generally not negatively impact the complainant. Coming forward with a harassment complaint can be hard enough, employers should not inadvertently increase this difficult task by placing additional burdens on complainants. Obviously, it is not the job of the women on this ship to shield themselves from the inappropriate behaviour of their colleagues with baggier pants.

Dress Code Rules

Employers do need to be cautious regarding dress codes and uniforms as they can inadvertently be discriminatory. Rules in a dress code should not exclusively target women. Conversely, dress codes or uniform requirements may violate human rights laws if they require women and men to dress in gender-specific or sexualized ways. The Ontario Human Rights has good information on sexualized and gender-specific dress codes and further advises that dress code rules should be “inclusive of all employees, including men and women, people with disabilities, and anyone who needs accommodation for religious reasons. Make sure that any requirements are made in good faith and are genuinely required to do the job.