How can the Female Body Exist in the Workplace?
Am I the only one who over thinks her outfit for the work day? Not what outfit will look good to post on Instagram but rather concerned that in the wrong light my shirt might reveal my bra outline or is this pencil skirt too tight? These are thoughts that theoretically I should not have. I do not subscribe to victim blaming mentality, however these thoughts are pervasive and a fear that my clothes at work might be revealing and be deemed as unprofessional.
Are these concerns borne from actual co-worker interactions? Fortunately that is not the case for me personally. However what is one of the first questions we hear from the public and police when a woman is assaulted, those dreaded words of ‘what were you wearing?’ Such questions indicate that how women dress directly contributes to how they should be treated, a theory called sexual objectification, and relates to how “many women are sexually objectified and treated as an object to be valued for its use by others”(Bartky, 1990). Research has shown sexual objectification can be internalised and as result can “increase women’s opportunities for body shame – the emotion that results from measuring oneself against a cultural standard and coming up short” (Szymanski et al, 2011:8). This is compounded by other factors such as race: “SO [Sexual Objectification] is likely to be influenced by race/ethnicity…further elaboration of how external and internalised so may intersect with women’s other sociocultural identities is needed”(Szymanski et al, 2011:9).
This became clear in 2016 when images of a teaching assistant in a primary school was posted on the internet and drew both “substantial praise – she’s a pretty woman with an enviable figure – and visceral criticism” (D’Oyley, 2016). The fact that a black woman’s body was being publicly picked apart and commented on is a result of the way that racist historical images have displayed black women as immoral through over-sexualisation, as Dupont-Joshua points out: “black self-image has become distorted by a negative gaze installed by racist images and responses in the eye of the beholder, a process that was normalised in the main by education and upbringing” (Dupont-Joshua, 2003:23).
What has this got to do with business?
If sexual objectification is a part of our society that means it permeates all facets of society and that includes business. There is a large body of research on female attractiveness and perceptions of competence which indicates that “’what is beautiful is good (and competent)’ is generally sup- ported” (Jackson, Hunter, & Hodge, 1995). Obviously all types of businesses will have a policy on dress code that is appropriate, to improve this further would be to have a dress code policy that solely focuses on the job description, that is, that clothes – for men and women – should be suitable for the task in hand.
To help accept the female body in workspaces is to take the onus off women. If men are unable to ‘concentrate’ in the presence of women, we need to de-stigmatise female bodies, in particular the black female body, and this entails not treating a woman’s body as a public forum to linger over and talk about. To achieve this, businesses can implement training sessions on consent and appropriate workplace behaviour that is formed through consultations with female employees.