Sexual provocation and the office dress code

by | Feb 5, 2016

 Sexual provocation: should women be held responsible for distracting their male colleagues?

Do we ever hold men responsible for sexual provocation in the way they dress? Rarely or even never.

When I was asked to write an opinion piece on office dress codes and sexual provocation from women and/or men, I didn't think I would have much to say. I spend a good chunk of my week in a hard hat and steel tipped safety boots, so it's a difficult concept to get my head around. The environment I work in is super conservative and I have already been called into HR for being too unique (tartan kilt, red tights and Doc Martins, didn't hit the corporate sweet spot.) I also want to be remembered for my work, not my breasts (if I had any.)

Having said all that, even in my industrial environment, I have seen frissons of sexual attraction between colleagues which was more about pheromones than the fit of a figure hugging, industrial overall. In a survey conducted by Swimwear, 42% of the sample, indicated women dressed to impress women anyway, not men!

So when there was a mention of a strict dress code suggesting that women dressing "too provocatively" causes distractions, I had thought that all of that had been taken care of in the #distractinglysexy campaign.  By provocative, I have used the Merriman definition of "casual sexual feelings."

The suggestion pre-supposes three critical assumptions about dress code and sexual provocation:

  1. Women are responsible for not distracting male colleagues, rather than the guys being responsible for their own libidos, concentration levels, attention spans and casual sexual feelings. This reminded me of the Citibank employee who was fired for being too "hot." Sexual attraction is surely personal and one individual's definition of "hot" will vary from another's. One contributor said "If a guy finds my legs more interesting than his job, he needs a new job".
  2. Women do not find the way men dress to be sexually provocative.
  3. Men do not dress to be sexually provocative to women

Dr. Gordon Patzer, author of Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined, is a world authority on physical attractiveness, says a lot of what women notice in the first few minutes is appearance-based. The main factors are: height, build, attractiveness and smile. Also women are reported to have better peripheral vision than men, which allows their checking out and observations to be more discreet! Even I remember the Diet Coke hunk commercial.

Given my limited experience in this area, I enlisted support from friends and colleagues. Their names have been changed to protect their relationships. They didn't want their partners, husbands or kids to think they spend their days lusting after the men in their workplace. Their ages range from 22 to 50- something, with different levels of seniority.

Question 1  - Do women notice what men wear in the office

Response from all YES.

Question 2 - Can men dress in a sexually provocative way in the office?

The male grooming market is showing significant growth and the word manscaping has entered our vocabularies, so they do care. The male fashion spend is booming. But who do men dress for?

These are the observations from the group.

Aleshia, 22, Trainee:  "Of course women notice how men dress! Skinny jeans on dress down Friday are great, but not the IT Help Desk kind. That whole idea of women not being aware of men, de-sexualizes women. "It's nonsense."

Jocelyn, 35, Law Associate: "We have a super strict office dress code. But a good-looking guy, who works out, in a well cut Italian suit and fitted shirt, would not go unnoticed. We have an ice-hockey playing, Swedish, Corporate Tax Lawyer who attracts a lot of attention. Does he know it - ab.sol.ute.ly!"

Cathy, 50 ish, Research Director:  "my age hasn't impacted my long vision. Women are not oblivious to attractive well-groomed men in the office.  It's basic biology.  To put the onus on a woman not to distract her colleagues, is in line with women inviting rape because of what they wear. It's sexist and out of date."

Meghan 31, Commodity Trader: "I work in a testosterone fuelled environment. Most of the older men don't seem that bothered and look pretty grungy, but not as a fashion statement. Many of the younger men really work on their appearance, buy great looking, flattering clothes that accentuate their fit bodies, because they keep in shape. Their tattoos are visible through their fitted, Charvet shirts. Does that distract me? No. Do I notice... what do you think? Do they do it deliberately? Yep...of course. They know exactly what works."

Tessie, 42,  Data Analyst:  "We have an office dress code that favors smart casual. Designer stubble on a groomed man, is pretty sexy. I don't mean the "I didn't have time to shave" type! Ugh! Maybe the difference is that women don't check men out as openly, as they leer after women. But make no mistake, women notice what men wear and look like."

So there you have it.

The adage that "if you'd wear it to a night club, leave it in the closet" applies to a professional wardrobe selection. But unless women come dressed to the corporate workplace like pole dancers or for a night out, the notion that they are responsible for not distracting their male colleagues in antiquated. We are all responsible for our own behaviour. And it seems the ladies are very aware of what the guys are wearing! All women thought that younger generations of men dressed to appeal to women.

The key thing it's your work that counts.

Women have enough issues being judged on their appearance without being held responsible for sexual provocation and the reactions of their male colleagues. Observing what we wear in the office is one thing - but it should in no way impact professional interaction.

What do you think?

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Fashion Junkie Contributor
Fashion Junkie is a Gen Y closet fashion fiend. By day she is an industrial engineer with a passion for clothes and trends, at night she is a glam fashionista. She loves to Benettonize her friends' closets and moonlights at weekends sharing her ideas about clothes for women who care about how they look, recognises that some games need to be played, but without selling their souls. Above all she wants the judgement of women's appearance in the workplace to be reduced to the same level as men. She is not so much out of the box but was never really in it!

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