When Tiffani Massis, 22, signed her contract to work at Tilted Kilt, she was required to wear a low cut top that would reveal her cleavage and midriff, a short plaid skirt revealing her legs; and a three inch Mary Jane heel. At first, she thought it would be fun. As it turns out, it was far from fun.
Dealing with harassment from customers, an unprotective manager and aching feet while serving food wasn’t easy.
“Instead of looking at your face, the customers would be looking at your boobs,” said Massis.
She had comments thrown at her by male customers, and when she ignored them, they started to throw coasters at her head to get her attention. A male customer even offered her a much larger tip to go home with him after she completed her shift. She declined.
And when she tried to cover her chest with her hair, her manager asked her to put her hair behind her shoulders.
“In the end, the money wasn’t worth it,” Massis said. “I couldn’t take it anymore. They really should change the uniform.”
Massis isn’t alone in this fight. The Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a policy paper on March 8, calling for an end to uniform requirements that are discriminatory towards female and transgender employees. In particular, it addresses workplaces that require women to dress in high-heels, tight dresses, short skirts and low-cut tops.
“Employers must make sure their dress codes don’t reinforce sexist stereotypes,” said OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane. “They send the message that an employee’s worth is tied to how they look. That’s not right, and it could violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
Nicole Simes, an employment lawyer at MacLeod Law Firm in Toronto, said that the policy is necessary as sexualized dress codes can lead to a number of issues for female workers.
“Some [women] feel uncomfortable with the dress code and pressured to comply with it in order to get more shifts and to get more tips, and even not be terminated,” she said.
She added that these dress codes are related to very serious issues such as sexual assault.
“Women that are required to wear sexualized attire tend to face increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace,” she said.
Saba Akhtar was a server at St. Louis Bar & Grill for a year, until precisely this kind of sexual harassment due to sexualized uniforms drove her to quit.
Her first bad experience was when two male customers spent the entire night mouthing suggestive comments at her.
“I put up with it all night because I get that very often,” Akhtar said. “But then at the end of the shift when I was cashing them out one of the guys said, ‘Oh they made a good choice with these uniforms, if you want to make more tips you should just bend over a little bit for me’ and I was just astonished.”
Akhtar says the worst part about the sexual harassment that she faced because of her tight and revealing uniform was that no one, including herself in the beginning, thought it was inappropriate.
“I think that this costume, and it is a kind of costume, brings more of this harassment in because it leads to suggestion that you’re allowed to do this,” Akhtar said.
Sexual harassment and assault aren’t even the only issues servers like Akhtar and Massis face. Female servers often deal with aching feet and severe back pain.
“My feet would ache, as I used to be there from morning until night,” Massis said. “I was in so much pain.”
Chiropodist Peter Bello, has been treating patients who have developed foot pain due to professions which enforce wearing heels for many years now.
“Most servers take 10,000 steps to 12,000 steps per eight-hour shift,” Bello said. “The average person takes 7,000 to 8,000 a day.”
Bello says the entire biomechanics of the body is readjusted since servers are usually moving around at a fast pace, worsened when wearing heels. If not treated, patients might suffer from bone deformities such as hammertoes and bunions.
However, often due to lack of benefits provided by employers and expensive consultations, many servers like Massis choose to endure the pain.
Councillor Mike Layton, also a women’s rights activist, once worked as a bartender at a restaurant on King Street. While he was allowed to wear a t-shirt with jeans, he felt there were expectations for his fellow female servers.
“The waitresses at the restaurant were perhaps told they should wear a certain style of dress - not any particular size, but I’m sure there was an implication, where there just wasn’t for me,” Layton said.
Aleshia Ali, 24, was a customer at Shoeless Joe’s; she found herself uncomfortable looking at the female servers.
“The waitresses were wearing skimpy clothing,” Ali said. “If they bend over you could see a little something something. It made me uncomfortable as a woman to even eat there.”
As someone who wasn’t used to wearing such tight and short clothing in everyday life, Akhtar said she felt “very bare” and “very exposed” in this kind of uniform. Just as Ali felt uncomfortable seeing servers in such short skirts, Akhtar felt uncomfortable wearing it.
“If I bent over, people could see my ass, so I definitely had to be careful and bend certain ways,” Akhtar said. “And then even when you bend those certain ways you still come off as looking suggestive because it looks like you’re popping your ass for people, so no matter what, you’re exposed to sexual suggestion.”
Male servers on the other hand, both at Shoeless Joe’s and St. Louis, were wearing button down shirts and pants.
“They look professional,” Ali said. “They could go to an office right away and it would be fine.”
For Massis at Tilted Kilt, they were not allowed to walk outside of the restaurant or to their cars in their uniforms. They either had to “cover up” or have security escort them.
“If we aren’t allowed to walk downstairs by ourselves, then why are we even having this uniform in the first place?” Massis said.
While it is definitely possible that some women like these uniforms and enjoy wearing high heels and short skirts to work, their personal preference isn’t the problem here.
“The fact that all of us are forced to do it is a problem,” Akhtar said. “It’s frustrating because some of us aren’t comfortable doing that.”
For those who ask “if women don’t like their uniforms, why don’t they just quit,” Simes said this is not a good solution to making sure they can equally participate in the workplace.
“We have a legal system set up so that quitting doesn’t have to be a person's only option,” she said.
She urged women that have an issue with their attire to raise concern with their manager or human relations. If they still feel their human rights are being violated, she said they can take legal action by filing an application at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal or hiring a lawyer.
Servers like Akhtar, who have experienced the negative effects of such discriminatory uniforms firsthand, are optimistic about such actions.
“I’m hoping that things will get better in the next few years and that people will start to stand up for themselves,” Akhtar said.
Simes added that people who trivialize discriminatory uniforms as an issue contribute to much larger overarching problem in society.
“This kind of mindset allows sexual discrimination and all of its implications to persist not just in the workplace, but in all areas of society,” she said.