I’m a bartender at a hotel restaurant. The hotel caters to business travelers and international tourists, and our restaurant is pretty high-end. The hotel management company recently announced a new dress code and grooming policy. It seems fairly standard — the usual white shirts and dark slacks that are common in the restaurant industry — except for the grooming provisions. They say that women must wear makeup, including lipstick and mascara. Men are not allowed to wear makeup, but they have to cut their hair above the collar, while women have more leeway. Can they impose different rules on women and men? Can they require me to wear makeup?
Gender-based dress codes and grooming standards are a sort of exception to the usual rules about workplace sex discrimination. In all other respects, employers are required to treat men and women equally. Employers may not impose different rules or requirements on women than on men. For example, an employer could not legally require women to have more experience than men to be hired for a position, nor could they require women to arrive at work an hour earlier than men. In general, employers cannot create different performance, productivity, or conduct standards for women and men.
Similarly, employers are not allowed to bow to customer preference in any other respect when it comes to gender in the workplace. For example, courts have held that airlines may not discriminate against men who want to be flight attendants, even if their customers would prefer to be served by women. And, employers may not discriminate against women for jobs in the C-suite, even if their clients would be more comfortable doing business with men. Laws prohibiting sex discrimination are intended to change these cultural stereotypes, not to further them.
In the area of personal appearance, however, gender-based differences are allowed. And, because they are often upheld in the context of customer service positions like yours, it seems that part of the rationale has to do with customer expectations. Customers want to be served meals and drinks from employees who are well-groomed and look neat, and in our culture, that translates differently depending on whether the employee is male or female.
Courts have upheld different grooming standards and dress codes for men and women, including the requirement that women wear — and men not wear — makeup. Different hair requirements and clothing requirements have also generally been found to be legal. In one case, a federal appeals court allowed a casino to require female employees to wear makeup, to tease or style their hair, and to wear stockings, requirements that seem clearly intended to make these employees appear more sexually attractive to customers.
If a dress code or grooming requirement imposed a significant burden on one gender only, that might cross the legal line. For example, if men could wear any clothing they wanted, but women had to purchase uniforms at significant expense for the same job, a court might find this requirement to be discriminatory. Short of a heavily one-sided expense like this, however, different grooming codes for men and women are legal.