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A long-term employee with Acme, Barb Aroza has held a variety of progressively more responsible front office jobs, most of which focused on close interaction with customers, suppliers and other parts of the company’s supply chain. Barb is an intense worker, one who practically vibrates with energy as she tries to make every day her personal best. How she manages to maintain this blistering pace for the quarter century she’s been with Acme no one can say. Her explanation is that she craves the psychological high she gets when someone sends unsolicited praise for the outstanding work she did on their behalf. Regular infusions of such praise over the years, especially from customer, provide the positive reinforcement she needs to stay in top form.
When she first came to Acme, Barb wore makeup and other accoutrements typical of her gender because that’s what was needed to land a job and keep it in the uptight 1970s. Later, after the Acme power structure had accepted her competence as given, she gradually dispensed with the rigmarole, including the makeup, in favor of attire more consistent with her personal lifestyle preferences. This freedom allowed her to focus on doing the job extraordinarily well, instead of being distracted constantly by worries about whether she looks attractive, an issue that was of no importance to her. Acme management never objected to Barb’s gradual morphosis and she simply continued on her merry way, doing her thing day after day and, by the way, earning herself a string of excellent performance reviews to boot.
Earlier this year, Acme’s executive committee for continuous improvement rolled out the first in a series of initiatives designed to reinvent the company and attract greater market share. The initial proclamation was a revised dress and grooming standard for office employees at each Acme manufacturing plant. The new rules, however, didn’t apply to employees working on the loading docks or the production lines down on the plant floor.
The thinking behind this spiffifying edict was that dressing well improves one’s self-esteem and builds one’s feelings of confidence. Behind that objective was a desire to help employees avoid doing anything that could possibly jeopardize the quarter’s financial numbers and upset the anticipated executive bonus payout.
The new grooming standards for females include the requirement to wear makeup, including mascara, lipstick, blush and foundation. Hair must be curled or styled and not held off the neck with a comb or clip. The rules also state that women are to wear nylons every day and that only certain colors of nail polish are acceptable.
That’s not to say that males are exempt from a parallel set of dictates. Men can’t wear hair that touches or extends below the top of the shirt collar. And shirts must have collars. Ponytails and facial hair are specifically prohibited. Men must keep their fingernails clean and trimmed with no evidence of colored nail polish. Men are expressly prohibited from wearing makeup of any kind.
The long-standing but unwritten tradition of casual Fridays was formally rescinded. Except for earrings on female employees, any visible body piercing is totally taboo. In addition, the dress standards explicitly prohibit running shoes, denim, miniskirts, halter tops, tank tops, T-shirts, sweatshirts and any article of clothing imprinted with clever sayings, team logos, designer’s names, or any other image, graphic or wording.
Acme management desires, after all, 100% compliance. Mercifully, the committee granted office employees a one-month grace period intended to give the affected crew an opportunity either to purchase whatever supplies or clothing they need and schedule a visit to a barber or hair salon, or apply for a job on the dock or in the plant where the code didn’t apply.
The arrival of the company-wide e-mail announcing the dress code didn’t sit well with Barb. As soon as she finished reading it, she stomped off to see Elmer Sklew, her department head.
“This dress code,” Barb grumbled, “is unfair to women. Compliance imposes an unfair burden on us.”
“What do you mean?” Elmer asked, somewhat shocked by the sudden intrusion.
“Do you have any idea how much extra time it takes a woman to meet these rules each morning?” she asked. “You men simply shower, get dressed and off you go. And, if there are children in the family, it’s the woman who generally is saddled with being the primary morning caregiver.”
“Barb, I don’t write the rules here,” replied Elmer. “What do you expect me to do?”
“It’s not only time,” Barbed continued her fuming. “Do you have any idea what cosmetics cost? I know you’ve seen the studies showing that women earn only 70% of what men earn for doing exactly the same job. Gosh darn it, Elmer, female workers here should at least get an across-the-board raise just on general principles.”
“Calm down, Barb,” Elmer pleaded. “This is bigger than both of us. I think you’re going to have to deal with it.”
“And the kicker,” Barb added indignantly, “is that these rules want me to conform to a feminine stereotype that doesn’t fit me at all. In fact, I think this whole thing stinks.”
“As I said, Barb,” replied Elmer, now quite dismissive in his attitude, “deal with it as best you can. You’ve made your point, I understand your position, but I can’t help you on this one. But, I advise you to pick your battles carefully. Meanwhile, you still have a month either to comply with the dress standards or start applying for a different job down on the plant floor.”
During the grace period, Barb adamantly refused to comply with the policy on the grounds that it degrades her dignity by forcing her to conform to an offensive, regressive, exploitive sexual stereotype that has absolutely nothing to do with the job she was hired to perform. She argued that the sexual stereotype Acme is trying to promote as its ideal is outmoded and inconsistent with ongoing sociological trends in the manufacturing arena in this country.
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