Women are an afterthought in legislatures around the country. That needs to change

Last week, women working in the B.C. legislature won the right to bare arms — that is, to wear sleeveless attire — after publicly rejecting orders from legislature staff to cover up. It was a win for reporters and political staffers, but one that’s geographically limited — nothing has changed within the walls of New Brunswick’s legislature, or Manitoba’s, for example.

The rules of these essential spaces are determined at the whim of speakers and, in B.C.’s case, have not been reconsidered since 1980 — a time when women accounted for just 10 per cent of the seats in the B.C. legislature.

Last Thursday, I was among nine women to proudly bare my arms in the halls to protest vague rules and inconsistent policing of women’s clothing by legislature staff. A quick snap posted to social media kicked off the #RightToBareArms campaign.

The B.C. legislature’s speaker questioned the premise of our complaint, claiming the province’s approach “is consistent with practices in place across legislatures in Canada.”

But we know that’s not true. Former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne wore a sleeveless shift dress enough for it to be a signature outfit. In the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland frequently wears a similar frock.

By Monday, the speaker’s office had reversed its position, stating sleeveless options are an appropriate choice for women. Acting clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd is conducting a full review of the legislature’s dress code to ensure it is “in line with modern, parliamentary expectations.”

Dress code enforcement may seem trivial to some, but it’s important in terms of ensuring equitable workspaces. Men are not the only ones walking the halls of power in 2019, and the rest of us deserve to do so without worrying about being hassled about the length of our sleeves. As Mitzi Dean, NDP MLA and B.C.’s first parliamentary secretary on gender equity, noted in an interview with CBC: “Women are over-scrutinized and over-policed in terms of how they present what they wear.”

What are the rules?

What men wear in Canadian legislatures has historically been subject to specific rules, but provinces have different interpretations of what constitutes appropriate apparel.

Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms, the book on which many of Canada’s parliamentary rules are based, calls for “conservative, contemporary standards” of dress. Men are required to wear a jacket and tie; when it comes to proper parliamentary attire, Beauchesne’s makes no mention of women. 

Like B.C., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador do not have specific dress codes, relying instead on Beauchesne’s standards and the vague notion of “business attire.” Nunavut, calls for members to wear traditional clothing or dress “in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the assembly.”

Jackets, ties and collared shirts are the norm in the House of Commons, but the dress code also  allows for traditional cultural clothing, military uniforms, clerical collars and kilts.

Therein lies the problem: while the rules for men are usually laid out in black and white, what is appropriate for women is often open to interpretation, leaving us vulnerable to random policing of our outfits.

This can result in demeaning situations that distract women from their work. Some have suggested that the dress code issue could be settled by requiring women to dress as men do — jackets and ties for everyone! A simple fix but not a satisfying one for those of us who prefer progress over hallowed tradition. It’s certainly not a solution to address the fact that legislature dress codes have simply ignored the existence of women, in some cases, for decades.

If rules are to be enforced, they should be clear and accessible to those expected to respect them. But do we really need dress codes for professional adults? I say no — men and women alike are perfectly capable of dressing themselves professionally and with appropriate respect for the gravitas of the legislature. Those who are offended by the sight of women’s bare arms — or men’s for that matter — are free to look elsewhere.

Proactive change

What is worn in the legislature is trivial. What is done, in the chamber and in the halls, is what matters. If a standard is required, what is allowed in the House of Commons should suffice for the rest of Canada’s legislatures.

Women have always had to fight: to be considered people with the right to cast a ballot and to be accepted in institutions built with only men in mind. But it’s 2019 and an incremental, piecemeal approach to women’s equity and inclusion is not good enough.

Legislatures around the country need to take a proactive approach to ensuring their rules and policies don’t make women an afterthought. This means taking a hard look at everything from washroom access to parental leave and making changes where the status quo is outdated or discriminatory. And bonus points for having women lead the way.

In Monday’s memo, B.C.’s speaker noted the legislature is “a workplace setting that has been dominated by one gender for far too long.” That needs to change — and not just in B.C.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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