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Sexualized and gender-based dress codes may discriminate

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Employers can have dress codes, but only if they do not violate the CodeHuman rights decisions dating back to the 1980s have found that dress codes that create adverse impacts based on sex violate human rights laws. Any sex-based requirements in the dress code must be legitimately linked to the requirements of the job, or they will be discriminatory.[11]

Despite legal protections, sexualized and gender-specific dress codes appear to be common in the food service industry, particularly in table service, and can also be found in other employment and services.[12] In the restaurant sector, women have raised concerns about being required or pressured to conform to gender-based and sexualized expectations, such as being told to wear high heels, makeup, jewelry, particular hair styles, short skirts, and uncomfortable, tight or otherwise revealing clothing (see Appendix A). For example[13]:

“Not dressing up ‘enough’ in terms of hair and makeup does result in a decrease in the number of shifts you get.”

“We’ve been told if you don’t want to wear heels, you can work in the dining room [lower tips than the bar] or at another restaurant.”

The impacts of these requirements can be significant. The OHRC heard restaurant workers describe feeling physically uncomfortable, embarrassed, excluded and/or exposed because of sexualized and gender-based dress codes, including grooming and accessory requirements. Some reported feeling unsafe in the workplace. They felt the required clothing or shoes caused physical constraints, safety risks or health problems, or that they were subjected to greater levels of sexual harassment because of dress and grooming requirements. For example[14]:

“Men think it’s ok in these restaurants to hit on [female servers] and make sexual comments, and I do think it is a direct result in terms of how we are presented to them.”

“I and a lot of the girls working there have damaged feet, back pain, and chronic neck pain from wearing heels and lifting heavy plates for 8-9hr shifts.”

Twenty-two percent of Canadian workers start out in the food service industry.[15] The work environment they experience can set the tone for their employment future. Sexual and gender-related objectification, inequality, harassment and discrimination can become normalized, so some workers assume that their own inappropriate behaviours are acceptable, and others feel they must tolerate the unfair treatment, or quit. All employees should be able to work in a fair and equitable environment without discrimination or harassment, whether they eventually move on to other work, or have a long career in food service.

[11] For more information on the OHRC’s long-standing position on dress codes and legal cases, see the OHRC policy position on sexualized and gender-specific dress codes (Appendix B) and the OHRC guide, Human Rights at Work

[12] Policy position, Ibid., OHRC interviews with industry experts (anonymous) and media reports, such as Rajeev Syal, “The law must be tougher over dress code discrimination, say MPs,” The Guardian, January 25, 2017.

[13] Email to the OHRC.

[14] Email to the OHRC.

[15] Restaurants Canada, “Canada’s Restaurant Industry: Putting jobs and economic growth on the menu,” Fall 2010. Online at

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