BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Pick a decade, any decade. From secretaries in
miniskirts in the "Mad Men"-style '60s and Southwest Airlines'
"hostesses" in hot pants in the "liberated" '70s, to the
present-day surge of provocatively dressed young female service
workers -- the ubiquitous "Hooter Girl," for example -- University
at Buffalo Law Professor Dianne Avery has a name for it all.
"The Great American Makeover: "The Sexing Up and Dumbing Down of
Women's Work," is the subject of her ongoing research on the
sexualization and commodification of female service workers.
According to Avery, employers for decades have cashed in on
service workers' sexuality by dictating what they wear on the
The only difference between what happened decades ago and now,
she says, is the scale and sophistication of the industry of image
consultants, uniform designers and manufacturers that deliver the
corporate brand through dress codes and mass-produced uniforms.
Not only is the influence of image consultants and uniform
designers stronger and more comprehensive than one boss'
questionable taste, but workers also have had little success in
resisting sex-based dress codes through antidiscrimination law or
union grievances, Avery says.
And another difference: The frontline service workers who are
pressured to wear clothes that send strong sexual messages to their
customers are younger and younger, often not yet out of their
"It's everywhere," says Avery, who will undertake a new study
this spring on the role of professional image consultants and
uniform designers in creating "sexy and glamorous" uniforms and
appearance rules for large corporations in the airline, hotel,
restaurant and entertainment industries.
"The issue of workplace appearance, dress, grooming and dress
codes has never been more important or significant," Avery says.
"What I have seen in the last decade is a return to the attempts to
sexualize certain kinds of front-line service jobs and to 'gender'
"By that, I mean making certain kinds of women's jobs or
shunting women into certain kinds of work, to sex them up, to doll
them up, and that's why I call it the 'sexing up and dumbing down'
of women's work because that's what it is. It's about how beautiful
you are, how thin, how attractive, how sexy. How alluring. How you
sell the corporate brand. Not how competent, how smart or how
capable you are of doing the job."
That these revealing uniforms are reaching teenagers is
especially troubling to Avery, who notes the recent rise in sexual
harassment complaints brought by young workers in the fast food
"The harm is in the lack of understanding of the relationship
between work and gender," she says. "It keeps these workers
continually categorized in a kind of subordinate status. And I
understand that it appears that the law is crashing up against the
culture. But when you are dealing with an individual's desire to
choose how to appear or what kind of job she wants, it's very
"The reality is that in these front-line service jobs where
workers are dressed in uniforms or clothing that is very
provocative, the employees don't have a lot of other choices.
They're often poorly paid, contingent, part-time workers, with no
health benefits and no internal career ladder.
"There is no question many teenagers think it's great to get
these retail and service jobs, which might be their first job. But
the clear message is their worth as workers is sexual. There is a
lack of awareness of how these retail, food-service and other
front-line service jobs are really very exploitative -- how the
employees look sends a poor message about work and human
For Avery, much of the imperative of her present work is an echo
of common chords that have driven her scholarly agenda throughout
her more than 25 years teaching labor and employment law courses in
the UB Law School. She has co-authored three editions of a popular
casebook, "Employment Discrimination Law: Cases and Materials on
Equality in the Workplace." The latest edition -- the eighth -- was
published this past spring by the Labor Law Group, a select group
of national and international labor and employment scholars. Avery
used this book in her "Employment Discrimination Law" class at UB
last fall. With Catherine Fisk, Chancellor's Professor of Law at
the University of California-Irvine, she wrote the introductory
chapter to the book "Litigating the Workplace Harassment Case,"
which was just published by the American Bar Association.
"I am suggesting we seriously rethink our discrimination law on
workplace appearance and grooming codes before another generation
of women gets sexed up and dumbed down on the job," she writes in
the conclusion of one of her published lectures.
This spring, Avery's new study will draw on a previous article,
"Branded: Corporate Image, Sexual Stereotyping and the New Face of
Capitalism," which she co-authored with Marion Crain, Wiley B.
Rutledge Professor of Law at Washington University in St.
"The designers of clothing fashions and makeup…place
their stamp and their look on the faces and bodies of millions of
workers in the United States who are required to wear uniforms to
work," she says.
Avery is particularly interested in how low-wage, frontline
service workers can resist the phenomenon of "sexing up" -- not
only through antidiscrimination law, which so far has proved to be
of limited use, but also through collective bargaining and
grievances in unionized workplaces.
"The law's promise of equal opportunity in the workplace --
regardless of 'sex' -- should embrace all workers," Avery says,
"including those who can't be or don't want to be 'sexed up' on the
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