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Disputing Gender Fashion Norms in the Workplace

By Jonathan Pierron, Executive Editor

Figuring out what to wear for an upcoming interview is often a struggle. The perfect balance between expressing personality through clothing and remaining professional is difficult to master. It can be accomplished with the right amount of thought and planning, but for Omar Meza, a genderfluid individual who uses the pronouns he/him and she/her, finding the perfect interview outfit can be even more challenging because of his identity. 

Photo by Mack Wagner

In the U.S., the concept of professional attire was built to ensure inequality. It forces people into extremely specific, general categories where they are to be perceived as professional, and therefore, hireable. These limitations take many forms: making expensive clothing a necessity, imposing shame on the natural hair texture of Black individuals and the declaration of unprofessionalism to anyone who does not abide by the strict dress code based on the idea of a gender binary. 

The gender binary is the belief that there are only two opposing genders: male and female. Under this belief system, people within these two groups are expected to act and dress in specific, assigned ways. Although inaccurate, the binary method for understanding gender manifests itself in our society’s overall conception of professionalism. Under that system, particular articles of clothing, such as ties or pants, are assigned to men, while dresses and floral prints are assigned to women.

Those who do not fit into those limiting categories, such as Meza, can be met with negative first impressions. The unspoken guidelines for what an individual can and can’t wear prohibit the ability to express gender identity for many, especially those in the LGBT+ community. With rules put in place, both abiding by them and breaking them serve as statements. People who are genderqueer, or otherwise queer, often break these boundaries as a way of expressing their gender and how they feel through clothing choices and accessories.

“For a while, it actually affected the way I felt confident,” says Meza.

For people who are queer, using gender-specific clothing to present oneself is not as simple as expressing one’s fashion taste, rather, it’s an integral piece of who they are as a person. Meza expresses the importance of dressing in ways that he feels align with his gender identity. He mentions wearing a shawl-like poncho, bell-bottom pants, earrings and the color purple as examples of the ways he presents his true self.

“I feel very connected to myself when I wear something like that,” Meza says. 

Meza is a marketing coordinator who regularly meets with clients and co-workers. Meza said it took him a while to feel confident with truly expressing his gender in the workplace. 

“Not until recently, there have been laws where you could get fired for being part of the LGBTQ community,”  Meza says. 

What Meza says is true. Throughout history, gender discrimination has worked hand-in-hand with the social expectations of professionalism. Just five years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled sexual orientation and gender identity as protected identities under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The long-overdue decision made it illegal nationwide for workers to be fired based on gender identity or sexual orientation; however, it did not dismantle society’s overarching belief that people who dress in clothing outside of their assigned gender are inherently unprofessional.

Under the same protection, it states that people cannot be denied hire for their gender identities or sexual orientations: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

It would be illegal under that protection to not receive a job opportunity due to an interviewer’s biased opinion of the way someone dresses, but the fear for those who dress outside of the gendered binary dress code remains present. A study done by A Gender Not Listed Here found that 56% of transgender individuals surveyed were unemployed, and a whopping 76% of genderqueer individuals surveyed were unemployed. Those numbers serve as heavy reminders of how gender discrimination plays a role in people’s livelihoods.

With interviews serving the first role in acquiring employment, impressing the employer with their presentation is often a stressor for people who are genderqueer. Meza shares similar fears about the interview process. 

Photo by Mack Wagner

“When I have interviews, I want to be able to dress a certain way, or, not have to feel like I have to wear a shirt and tie to be professional,” Meza says. 

For Meza, it means sacrificing his authentic self to give a good impression to his potential employers. This is the sad reality for many queer people, as they are forced to leave themselves behind every day as they get dressed for work. 

“There are different aspects to being professional,” adds Meza. “It’s about the way you present yourself personally, it doesn’t even have to be physical.”

While the garments that cover your body do not determine your professional abilities or dedication, the concept of professional attire enforces the opposite idea. However, this is slowly changing when people like Meza break down those boundaries. Meza mentions “testing the waters” by delving further into his feminine wardrobe the longer he works somewhere.

“I do like to push the boundaries a little when it comes down to it,” explains Meza.

In many ways, Meza is in the first generation to do that. While we can thank older members of the LGBT+ community for tearing down many other social limits, their lasting efforts often fell short in the workplace. However, with protections like the Civil Rights Act, more and more queer professionals are wearing their identity with them into their places of work. Brick by brick, people like Meza are breaking down the idea of professionalism and rebuilding a more inclusive design for how workers can present.

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