Sooner or later, certain institutions will learn that establishing a dress code that is not unilaterally applied will get them into hot water and create a series of headlines which will have them apologizing to millions of strangers. Until they all do make this realization … or until said institutions tell the protesters to get lost, lessons will continue to be learned, and examples will continue to get made. Case in point, the Free University of Brussels.
During the most recent graduation season, amid the excitement and anticipation of surpassing this milestone, students at this Belgian university received an email with a certain suggestion. Here’s, in part, what that email conveyed to the 100 or so medical students who would be graduating:
“From an aesthetic point of view, it would be better if the young women would wear a skirt or a dress, as well as a low neckline, and the men, a suit. Of course, ladies, this guidance isn’t mandatory…”
This was not the only message in this particular missive. In fact, it was one phrase tucked away in a lengthy correspondence created by a school secretary, who obviously thought she was just offering a bit of friendly advice. Now, a generation ago, perhaps even ten years ago, this suggestion would have been met with a nod and a shrug. Not these days.
You know what comes next. Students protested…online of course…which brought in a whole world of “aggrieved” people saying the request was a stark example of rampant sexism. It really didn’t matter that this was just one lady’s idea, and it certainly didn’t matter that this was expressed as a suggestion that was explicitly not mandatory … people were not having it.
You know what comes next: the school was forced to apologize, and the Dean “spoke to” the secretary about her “inappropriate advice.” In speaking with the media, School of Medicine spokesman, Nicolas Dassonville, said the suggestion offered by the poor woman was “contrary to the values that the School of Medicine and the Free University of Brussels have always defended.”
There was no discussion of what, exact, values had been infringed upon, but Dassonville was quick to say the university “…isn’t more sexist than the rest of society, but it should be less. We are working on it…”
Typically, some people are applauding the apology, while others are saying the whole deal is much ado about nothing. But let’s get back to the opening line of this article. Here’s the lesson: if you decide to invoke a dress code, be prepared to be challenged and ready to stick to your guns. Cause asking people to dress your version of “appropriate” is going to elicit some “contrary” opinions.