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Denmark – A different dress code for men and women is consistent with the Act on Equal Treatment

Written by
Norrbom Vinding, the largest labour and employment law practice in Scandinavia and the market leader in Denmark.
The Danish Board of Equal Treatment recently held that a workplace dress code that set out different attire rules for men and women was not in conflict with the Danish Act on Equal Treatment of Men and Women.

According to the Danish Act on Equal Treatment of Men and Women, men and women must be treated equally with regard to employment conditions. But does it conflict with the Act if an employer requires that male employees wear closed-toe shoes and trousers, whilst allowing female employees to wear bare-legged outfits and open-toe shoes? That was the ‎question before the Danish Board of Equal Treatment in this case.

The case concerned a male employee who worked in a technical department at a large company. The employee believed that the company’s dress code discriminated on the grounds of gender and therefore filed a complaint ‎with the Board of Equal Treatment.

As part of a large merger process, the company implemented a dress code requiring ‘professional appearance’, ‘formal appearance’ and that the employees ‘dress accordingly’. The male employee worked in an open space office that both customers and business partners visited. As a result, the company wanted the male employee to wear formal and professional attire.

Shortly before summer, the manager at the employee’s department sent an email to the employees, specifying how the dress code should be interpreted. In the email, the manager stated that men had to wear trousers and closed-toe shoes, whereas women could wear bare-legged outfits and open-toe shoes, as such attire was considered professional for women.

The male employee emailed his manager, stating that the dress code was an expression of a discriminatory and outdated attitude to gender roles. He believed that his female colleagues were allowed to dress as they pleased and that it was not impressed on them that their attire was inappropriate. The male employee then filed a complaint with the Board of Equal Treatment.

Before the Board of Equal Treatment, the male employee argued that the requirements for covering up skin should be the same for men and women. In addition, he claimed that the company’s dress code was in conflict with the Act, as the work attire rules differed on grounds of gender alone.

The company argued that as a result of the merger process, the customer base of the company had changed in such a way that international customers and business partners now visited the company’s open-office space. In the company’s opinion, it was essential that the employees who were visible in this area had a professional appearance during working hours.

The Board of Equal Treatment found that the company’s dress code set requirements for professional and formal attire for both men and women. Taking into account the open-plan office layout and visits from international customers and business partners, the Board of Equal Treatment held that the company’s enforcement of the dress code did not conflict with the Act.

Key points to note

  • Not all kinds of differential treatment of men and women will be considered to be unlawful gender discrimination.
  • The concept of ‘formal and professional attire’ does not necessarily mean the same for men and women, but depends on the specific circumstances.