From makeup to uniform: experiences of sexism at work

Erin Sandilands, an eighteen year old from Ayrshire, is one of the many women to have been told how they should look by someone, but she is one of the few who challenged it.

If it isn’t women’s magazines, social media and ad campaigns, then unfortunately, it’s those around us and in some cases, people that we work with or for.

4390643819_7148bd9723_oErin was working as a waitress (no, not in a cocktail bar) in a bistro in Scotland when she was taken aside by a manager and told to look more feminine ‘for the punters’.

She was reportedly told to wear a skirt and make-up so that she would be ‘easy on the eye’ for the customers and on complaining, was told that her services were no longer needed.


As I read the story, I remembered my own experiences of this kind of behaviour; there have been too many to list. I got a job in a shop when I was eighteen and doing my A Levels. I had retail experience, good references and as it was local, knew a lot of the customers already.

I was told within my first month of working in the shop that I was hired because I was considered to be the ‘fittest’ candidate. Taken aback by this comment, I asked my male colleague if they’d thought I was going to be any good at the job, had they even cared about what I’d said in my interview? He replied, scoffing at my naïvety, “Why does it matter? You got the job.”

The second stand out moment was when I was nineteen. Similarly to Erin, I was working as a waitress (also not in a cocktail bar) whilst doing my degree. My male colleague, who was considerably older than me, leaned in to me. “If you want bigger tips, get ‘em out a bit more,” he said, knowingly. He also suggested that I wear a shorter dress.

Utterly creeped out by this exchange, I went home to my flat after work and felt crap. I couldn’t get my head around why men (and it always was men) said these things and why I hadn’t said anything in response. There have been instances since (and sadly, there will most likely be more in the future) where I’ve been reduced to nothing more than my appearance and unfortunately, I’m not alone.

I spoke to my Little Paper Slipper colleagues, Lizzie and Chiara, who have both experienced the same sort of thing.

Lizzie was working for an independently run business that’s part of a well-known franchise and was told she could only wear pencil skirts and not trousers as part of her uniform.

“Whilst I appreciate company policy on wearing a uniform, only being allowed to wear a figure-hugging skirt felt demeaning and as though we’d gone back in time.

“When I first started there, I was told one of the senior members of staff had ranked some of the lower level members of staff on their appearance as part of their appraisals. It definitely felt like there was more emphasis on female members of staff to ‘make an effort’ with their appearance, we were being praised for wearing make-up which was depressing and demoralizing.”

Chiara first moved to London four years ago and began looking for bar work. She found a job in a well-known pub in central London and was asked to send a photo with her CV.

“This should have been the first warning sign. Shortly after beginning to work here, I realised that all bar staff were young women. We were treated better by the all male management on the days that we wore makeup and were constantly told that we looked tired on days we didn’t put any on.

“I met a woman who worked in the pub kitchen; she had applied to work on the bar but was told she was better ‘suited’ to kitchen work due to her experience. It was almost funny; she’d never worked in a kitchen before but had plenty of bar experience. It became glaringly obvious that as she was in her thirties, she was considered to be too old to work front of house.”

These are just a few of the hundreds of examples that we could give you. Ask any woman if they’ve experienced anything like this, I bet the majority could tell you that they had.

Erin took the business to an industrial tribunal and has since been awarded more than £3,500 after the judge found her evidence to be ‘entirely credible’.

Well done to Erin, I really hope that her bravery will motivate more women to speak up against yet another way that we’re being told how to look.

by Jen McGee


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