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Female employees have been told by bosses to dress “sexier” and wear make-up for video calls while working from home due to the coronavirus crisis, a new study suggests.
More than a third of women have been subject to at least one sexist workplace demand since the COVID-19 lockdown began in March, according to the research by employment law firm Slater and Gordon.
One in three women surveyed said they were asked to wear more make-up or change their hairstyle, and almost the same number were asked to dress more sexily or provocatively.
Around two out of five women said they were left feeling “objectified, demoralised and self-conscious” about their appearance when they were asked to change their clothes or make-up, noting that demands were targeted at them or other women in their teams, rather than equally with male employees.
Bosses justified inappropriate comments about dress by saying it would “help to win new business,” it is important to “look nicer for the team,” and “it would be more pleasing to a client,” according to the study of 2,000 men and women.
A quarter of women said they agreed to change the way they looked because they were worried it would have a negative impact on their career and most of the employees told to dress more provocatively did not report their boss.
The study found that sexism had found “new and insidious” ways to thrive online, despite hopes that reports of sexist behaviour would decline as offices closed down and people moved to remote working because of the coronavirus crisis.
Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Danielle Parsons said: “It is categorically wrong for a manager or anyone in a position of power to suggest, even politely, for a woman to be more sexually appealing in the workplace.
“This is a powerful form of coercion which makes women feel as if they must adhere to the manager’s request and be more visually pleasing to be successful at their job. This is demeaning to women.
“It’s extremely disappointing that we are still having these conversations, particularly during this time when women are juggling a multitude of roles from home, and may be also struggling with childcare responsibilities. This type of archaic behaviour has no place in the modern working world.
“Requests of this nature are discrimination and unlawful where male counterparts aren’t treated in this way, or where such unwanted requests create a humiliating or degrading environment for women.”
Sue Harris, legal director of the GMB union, said: “The way women are treated in our society is absolutely reflected in the findings of this poll.
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“Nobody ever considers what a man looks like or suggests he change appearance for the purposes of a team call.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady called for the government to take action saying: “Sexism and harassment at work has a huge impact on women’s lives, even during a pandemic.
“Trade union reps can help members who experience it, but we need better laws to stop it happening in the first place.
“Ministers should strengthen the law by giving employers a legal duty to prevent sexual harassment at work. This would help put an end to toxic workplaces where sexism and harassment are an everyday experience for women.”