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The Heels that Hold Up Professional Prestige

In the workplace a particular form of discrimination prevails, one that is especially severe against women, consisting of imposing (explicitly or in unspoken terms) restrictions on people’s appearance, in line with stereotypes or imaginaries that only barely conceal an underlying disparagement of women’s professional capacities and unvarnished male chauvinism

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Photos: Lalis Jiménez
Photos: Lalis Jiménez

I’m definitely ruled out as a candidate for a career as a traffic cop in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area: I don’t meet three of the 14 requirements of the job offer recently published by the Ministry of Mobility (Semov). None of them have to do with the minimum education required (I did finish high school), or with my mental health (as far as anyone can see), or with a criminal background (so far); it’s not even about my height or weight (my ups and downs notwithstanding). What keeps me out of contention is that I wear glasses –I have my age to thank for that—but, more than anything, that I don’t look like the woman that this department of the Jalisco State Government has in mind.

In the private sector I would also be passed over for a job as sales executive – not even for credit cards—and even if I had finished law school, no one would take me seriously in that profession. All because I don’t know how to walk in high heels, I don’t wear pearl earrings, and I turned down that Chanel suit that a cousin offered me long ago.

In Mexico and many other countries around the world, in order to land a job in a great many professions and the keep it, it’s not enough to be a competent woman; you have to “look like a woman.” A feminine woman, preferably young and curvaceous.

Log onto any job listing on the Internet or take a look at classified ads. “Looking for receptionist. Maximum age, 27.” “We hire hostesses: good body a must, and the ability to spend long days on stiletto heels.” “Join our firm: maximum, size 30”… And a long list of “and so on’s,” no matter that they violate the provisions of the Mexican Constitution – Article 1 no less – , the Federal Labor Law and the Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination, not to mention the dozens of international treaties that Mexico has signed, making them mandatory within our borders.

The whole thing is a huge contradiction. What some employers have in mind with the ubiquitous excellent personal appearance is the Margaret Thatcher model, matronly and respectable, while others are thinking Galilea Montijo, the slinky Televisa talk show host and actress.

dress code

There’s nothing new about this, according to the academic Mariana Espeleta, of ITESO’s Center for Social Research and Formation (CIFS), a lawyer specializing in human rights and gender. Dress codes go back to the Middle Ages, and served to distinguish among the practitioners of different trades. These unwritten rules became stricter in the Modern Age, when formal education emerged as a way to establish a hierarchy of different kinds of knowledge, and the 20th century saw even greater refinement.

“The transfer of knowledge involves a series of rites of passage, like going to college, earning a degree, and others that make you appear to others as a professional in your field. One of the rites is clothing; another is language.”

Dressing and speaking in a certain way is a bonding mechanism among peers who recognize one another as belonging to the same knowledge group, and regard others as different. Those who dress like “their own” are welcome; otherwise, they are rejected. When it comes to women, there is a double code: one refers to the profession or trade, and the other to gender, depending on the imaginaries of the time and place.

According to Espeleta, women had a hard time being accepted in schools, and an even harder time being recognized as professionals. As late as the mid-20th century, a number of countries allowed women to go to college, but not to practice a profession. Even today many women submit to the demands of their particular professional dress code as something they have earned, and they don’t see it as oppression. They feel they are proving to the world that they have the right to hold a job.

There’s more. Mariana Espeleta observes that the more stratified a society is, the more urgent it becomes to belong to some recognized collective; the more aspirations of liberation are expressed in a group considered to be of lower status, the more a conservative society strives to push it back down. And the more the market is assigned a fundamental role in a society, the more dress-up gimmicks and gender-producing technologies it will try to sell. She cites the example of the footwear market, which has become a menace to the female foot by normalizing heels that were one restricted to certain occupations, like strippers.

—Do you sometimes feel like you have to wear a costume? —I ask the academic, certain that she will answer that of course not.

—Of course I do; when I have to represent the university at the Gender Observatory —she answers without missing a beat.

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In order to play the role, do you have to look the part?

In the Jalisco State Attorney General’s Office (FGE), another Mariana, this one with the surname Zambrano, is also a lawyer and works to enforce respect for human rights. For that reason, she says, every day she inserts her feet into a pair of narrow high-heeled shoes, to which she attributes the respect of her colleagues and the police investigators who cross her path as she teeters through her day. Unlike Espeleta, Mariana Zambrano does not feel like she is wearing a costume. On the contrary, at her 29 years of age she has spent the last 15 convinced that you don’t go to work in flat shoes.

For many professionals, this same conviction extends through the corridors of government offices on Independencia Boulevard, turns west on Hospital Street and makes a stop at the Federal Office Building on Alcalde Avenue; it then heads down Hidalgo Avenue to the Congressional Office Building, where public servants of the female persuasion display their femininity in the form of tight skirts that force them to descend stairs in tiny steps reminiscent of Japanese courtesans. The final destination is the Jalisco Government Palace, where a kind of generalized color-blindness reduces all attire to business suits in various tones of blue and gray.

In a 15-minute conversation, Mariana Zambrano repeats two or three times: “In order to play the role, you have to look the part.” In her case, this translates into a pair of discreet earrings, dark-black triangles— the same color as her tight-fitting pants—, a slicked-back ponytail, fuchsia nails that match her lipstick, and black shoes with bows on the instep.

Mariana’s heels are very high, but not as high as those of her colleague Andrea Gutiérrez, who at her 31 years commands almost twice the salary, which she has decided is reason enough never to stoop below 14 centimeters off the ground.

Like a trophy, Andrea shows off the crooked, splayed toes that she’ll have the rest of her life. She boasts of disobeying her angiologist, who gave her a choice between high heels and a healthy blood flow: she opted for a series of painful injections. She brags about her spending sprees, which by my calculations she must drop thousands of pesos on facials, oxygen therapy and teeth whitening.

dress code

Driven by morbid curiosity, I ask her whether she would hire me as her assistant. Not wanting to give me an outright “no,” she gives me a lecture on FGE style: I should, she suggests helpfully, straighten my hair every day, or more simply, comb it into a “neat” ponytail; I should wear a gold watch on my right wrist, buy myself a string of pearls, get my hands on some gold rings, reveal more—“either breast or leg meat”—. And it goes without saying that I should invest in some high heels, or at the very least a pair of platform shoes: “You’d look more presentable.”

When the head of human resource training and formation at ITESO, Yoloxóchitl Molina, grimaces at my description of Andrea Gutiérrez’s long-suffering toes, I realize that the dress code followed by the women at the FGE does not apply in all offices in the country. Yoloxóchitl regularly reports to work in a skirt and sneakers, and nobody questions her competence, just as she does not doubt the talent of her fellow workers who cultivate a look that is different from hers. She admits that she had to wear a costume for a few years when she worked in the Health Department. Even there, she recalls, she lowered the height of her shoes little by little, until everyone got used to her comfortable footwear.

The tacit or explicit requirement to wear high heels and adhere to a dress code in the workplace is a controversy that goes far beyond the confines of Mexican government offices.

On May 3, 2016, Nicola Gavins from Canada became famous after publishing the following message on her Facebook page: “To anyone I know who eats at Joey Restaurants (Jasper Ave, Edmonton location specifically). Their policy is still that female staff wear heels unless medically restricted, my friends feet were bleeding to the point she lost a toe nail and she was still discouraged and berated by the shift manager for changing into flats (specifically told that heels would be required on her next shift the following day). In addition, the female staff have to purchase a uniform/dress at the cost of 30$ while male staff can dress themselves in black clothing from their own closets (and are not required to wear heels). Sexist, archaic requirements and totally disgusting policy.”

To prove her point, Gavins published a picture of a woman’s bloody feet, wearing flimsy socks, next to a pair of pointy high heels. In a few days, the post spread like bird flu on a factory farm.

dress code

Discriminatory codes

Nicola Gavins jokes on Facebook: for the rest of 2016 many will associate her name with a pair of bloody feet next to black high-heeled shoes.

The funny thing is that the shoes that caused such a stir are identical to those that two transnational companies recommend for their Mexican female employees in photos illustrating their dress code. One of the companies works in the area of auditing and legal consulting, while the other launches and distributes new lines of cosmetics.

On its public Internet page, the first of the two companies defends diversity as one of its fundamental values: “…we respect and value our collaborators’ individual characteristics and offer equal treatment and opportunities for development in a work environment that recognizes talent and competence as key qualities,” it states.

But in its dress code, also available on the Internet, it insists that its female workers wear a dark tailored suit and long sleeves: “The skirt or dress must be knee-length […] preferably with plain, unpatterned stockings. The shoes should be closed and with heels; [Workers must] keep their hair well groomed and brushed, and if they dye it, do so in discreet colors […] It is important to pay attention to hand care and use nail polish in discreet colors…”

The second company restricts the use of hip-level pants on their female employees; on the other hand, it gives male workers greater leeway: “For a man, in the context of business, [the dress code] has changed considerably. Today, a suit and tie are no longer required at all times; there are many combinations that can be acceptable in the office setting.”

It’s not that men are completely off the hook when the bugbear of excellent personal presentation comes around. One example was the government program “Dress for success”, launched by the municipal government of Monterrey, Nuevo León in 2011. As a remedy for unemployment, which he seems to have attributed to a lack of proper grooming, the mayor of the city at the time, Fernando Larrazábal Bretón, handed out bundles of formal clothes for both sexes.

dress code

All the same, dress codes for women are more restrictive and even a health menace, because they have the effect of limiting or disproportionately burdening women over the course of their workday, according to the attorney Cinthia Ramírez Fernández, a specialist in gender studies at the National Pedagogical University.

She points out that the desirable image of the proper female employee is not a function of perverse company policy; it comes primarily from social stereotypes. In places like the FGE, female workers assume the cultural norm and they’re the first to press their peers to conform.

These codes become discriminatory when a woman is denied a job or a promotion because she does not dress the way the institution or private company would like, adds Ramírez, who formerly worked as an intern at the Inter American Court of Human Rights and is currently studying for a master’s degree in Constitutional Law and Legal Argumentation.

In theory, any Mexican can sue an employer who sets discriminatory conditions for job candidates. Article 1 of the Mexican Constitution—and there is no law or regulation that trumps the Constitution—says that no one may be subjected to discrimination “on the basis of ethnic or national origin, gender, age, disability, social condition, health conditions, religion, opinions, sexual preferences, marital status and any other criterion that goes against human dignity.” The Federal Labor Law is even more explicit in its article 1, paragraph III: it prohibits ruling out job candidates for reasons of culture, age, economic condition, physical appearance, migratory status, pregnancy, sexual preferences, identity, family responsibilities and criminal background, among others.

In the real world, however, Mariana Espeleta and Cinthia Ramírez agree that people are so desperate to secure income in tough economic times that almost nobody brings charges against someone who might become their boss.

dress code

 “Almost nobody” does not mean “nobody.” In November 2014, after hearing the charges of non-material loss filed in different courts by three individuals against a private company, the Federal Supreme Court ruled that age may not be a reason for exclusion (Direct Injunction under Review). The case began with a job offer in which a restaurant was looking for a female receptionist and a female event promoter between the ages of 18 and 25, and a male accounting analyst between the ages of 25 and 40. The plaintiffs could also have sued (but they didn’t) over the minimum height of 160 centimeters and the size 30 required of the female candidates.

In its arguments, the Court points out that in countries like Germany employers may not discriminate for reasons of sexual identity, while in the United States it is forbidden to ask for photos on job applications.

 

What will people say…

I try to explain some of these arguments to the general manager of Planning and Professionalization of the Jalisco Ministry of Mobility, Horacio Villaseñor, who adroitly defends the reasons behind Semov’s requirements for hiring new traffic cops. The job offer calls for candidates between the ages of 19 and 35; a minimum height of 160 centimeters, weight “appropriate” to the height, an eagle eye, an athlete’s health, and rules out those of us who have pierced our ear more than once or have a tattoo, unless the tattoo was intended to delineate the lips, eyes or eyebrows –that is, to let us be a feminine woman as soon as we step out of the shower—.

dress code

The pubic servant justifies himself: “The Ministry is trying to rejuvenate the force: the average age is around 45. The minimum height is so that officers can reach the accelerator on a motorcycle—should they have to ride one—; the weight, because the job calls for eight hours a day on their feet; the eagle eye, so they can read scofflaws’ license plates; the athlete’s health, including pregnancy tests, because the selection process is long, five months, and includes physical tests that demand great strength…” And the tattoos? And the piercings? The officer remains silent for some time, and finally answers: “Candidates could file an appeal if they were a centimeter short, or three kilos overweight, or had a tattoo… A commission would have to analyze the case, determine whether it is a small or a large tattoo. But let me put the question back to you: what would society think?”

In other words, society isn’t ready to obey the law… I’ll just have to keep on writing, because I’m ruled out from working as a traffic cop, a saleswoman, a bureaucrat in the Attorney General’s Office or a receptionist in a restaurant. m.

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