The B.C. legislature is in the midst of another controversy, this time over a woman’s right to bare arms.
Over the past few days three female legislature employees have been told by legislature staff that the sleeves on their tops were too short to be worn in the Speaker’s corridor. One government employee was told to leave the hallway.
The legislature has a policy that men and women must wear “suitable business attire.”
“Business attire is for the men to have a suit and tie, that would translate to proper business attire for female members,” Acting sergeant-at-arms Randy Ennis said.
“Society changes as we go forward in time. But sometimes there are things that need to be kept in tradition. Proper decorum and dress in the Speaker’s corridor and within the chamber is something that is being upheld at this point.”
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The dress code requirement is only for staff in the Speaker’s corridor, which is the hallway that runs behind the legislative chamber. Acting clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd said the current policy dates back to 1980.
The story has received significant attention online after a tweet from BC Today reporter Shannon Waters.
“It has been really nice to see, I honestly did not expect the tweet I put out there to blow up like it has,” Waters said in an interview. “The reaction has been, ‘This is ridiculous… the 1950s called and they want their dress code back.'”
Waters and other female staff are not opposed to a dress code but they are concerned about a lack of clear rules and guidelines.
“I think it is worth having a conversation about what is particularly unprofessional about short sleeves,” Waters said.
“What kind of brought this to a head is the fact women kind of felt we were being told our arms were not acceptable in a professional context, which seems really ridiculous. I believe the language that has been used to cover up really makes modern women bristle.”
The clerk at the legislature is now looking into the rules but for now will continue to enforce the no short sleeves policy. Speaker Darryl Plecas issued a memo to all staff in the Legislature building on Thursday.
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“The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has consistently applied a “conservative contemporary approach” to dress codes in the Parliament Buildings, as first articulated in a decision of Deputy Speaker Davidson on July 21, 1980,” the memo reads.
“Gender-neutral business attire generally constitutes layered clothing that includes covered shoulders. For example, for an individual who identifies as a man, this would typically include a collared dressed shirt and tie, dress pants or kilt, and a suit jacket. For an individual who identifies as a woman, this would typically include a business suit, dress with sleeves, or a skirt with a sweater or blouse; jackets or cardigans are not necessarily required. Individuals who do not identify as gender binary may dress pursuant to the guidelines above, as they deem appropriate.”
Finance Minister Carole James says things should be modernized and it’s “extraordinary” that this issue is still coming up.
“I certainly think a change is well overdue. Last year we dealt with babies in the chamber. When I first started here they were still converting some of the washrooms to women’s washrooms,” James said. “I think the dress code is long overdue and needs to be done.”
Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau said legislature assembly staff told one of her staffers to wear a slip under her dress as it was clinging to her legs as she walked.
“The women in this building are here to work, not dress for outdated rules,” she tweeted.
“The notion of telling women how to dress is indeed crazy,” Furstenau said. “I have never seen any unprofessionalism in this place. I am grateful to be working with the women in this place and they are all capable of making decisions on how they dress.”
On Thursday, Speaker Darryl Plecas responded in writing, saying the legislature has a “gender-neutral approach’ to parliamentary dress.
“Gender-neutral business attire generally constitutes layered clothing that includes covered shoulders,” Plecas wrote.
“For example, for an individual who identifies as a man, this would typically include a collared dressed shirt and tie, dress pants or kilt, and a suit jacket. For an individual who identifies as a woman, this would typically include a business suit, dress with sleeves, or a skirt with a sweater or blouse; jackets or cardigans are not necessarily required. Individuals who do not identify as gender binary may dress pursuant to the guidelines above, as they deem appropriate.”
— With files from The Canadian Press