The Free University of Brussels (ULB) was accused of being sexist after it asked its female students to wear low-cut dresses for graduation day. It was later forced to apologise.
An email sent round to all medical students informed that makes could wear suits, but women were told: “From an aesthetic point of view it is better for young women to wear a dress or skirt, and a nice revealing neckline.
“Of course, ladies, this advice is not obligatory,” the email added.
The scandal was revealed following the above email that circulated a student’s Facebook page. The response has not been welcoming. “No one has the right to tell you how you should feel in your skin.
“No one has the right to tell you how you dress. Nobody has the right to tell you how to play your role as a woman,” one person wrote, according to the Huffington Post.
Enrique Garcia, employment law consultant for the ELAS Group, on the matter told Lawyer Monthly:
“Whilst dress codes can be gender specific, they should hold equivalence in terms of their smartness, for example, a uniform may require that a man wears a tie whilst a female’s uniform may have a neck scarf or open neck blouse. This is because an open neck blouse is still considered smart on a woman but an open neck on a man may be considered casual. Men and women can be asked to wear different things and it is not unlawful to ask men and women to wear different things as long as that level of equivalence is maintained.
“With that being said, asking a woman to wear something revealing is completely unacceptable and outdated. There are very, very few exceptions that may apply to this rule e.g. models, actresses during specific projects, works etc. Asking women to wear a revealing outfit, especially for aesthetic reasons, during a graduation ceremony is jaw-dropping. These ladies are celebrating their academic achievements – academia is more than aesthetics and a person’s appearance should be the last thing on their minds. Similarly, such a dress code in the workplace will almost certainly be considered discriminatory. It will be a very brave employer who argues that this is reasonable and they will have a steep uphill climb in doing so.
“It is unsurprising that the University has apologised. The further suggestion that the writer of the dress code was a woman would hold little sway in any tribunal – it is not a defence to discrimination that you hold the same protected characteristic as a complainant. Holding a particular protected characteristic does not entitle anyone, least of all an employer, from treating those with the same protected characteristic less favourably than they treat or would treat others without that protected characteristic.”
Clayton Williams, Consultant at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law, had this to say to Lawyer Monthly: “When a Belgian university invited its female graduates to wear a ‘skirt and a nice revealing neckline’ at their graduation ceremony, you might have thought it was a line from an episode of Poirot set in 1920. Given Belgium is the largest producer of comics globally, it was surely lifted from a 1950’s strip?
Alas, there is no such explanation and in a country which recognises three official languages, produced the first newspaper in history and leads the world on gay rights – it makes the degrading objectification of women more surprising.
“What offends most is the clause that generously allows women an opt out to choose their own attire. It beggars belief.
It would be unfair to single out sexists in one country. Women being belittled or threatened with disciplinary proceedings for refusing to wear sexist clothing at work is as common in London as it is in Liege; Antwerp as it is in Andover.
“Stories abound about women being advised to wear more revealing clothing in an attempt to attract male customers; to bleach hair blonde and in the case of Nicola Thorp, being sent home for refusing to wear high heels.
“At a time where the cost of redress, via an employment tribunal, remains prohibitively expensive for individuals subjected to gender and sexual discrimination, we look to institutions such as universities to stamp out all such antiquated behaviour.
“Belgium has had the highest number of women parliamentarian ministers in the world and first elected a women MP in 1921. Such statistics are the real markers of a decent and progressive society. Now that really is worth a headline.”