Monday, June 10, 2013

Men in Skirts

This is both an interesting piece of news and an opportunity to point out how reporting changes what the reader comes away with.

The story, as it is given at the website of the Finnish public television system (yle), is that some local train services in Sweden  were last year taken over by a company called Arriva.  Whether that is a privatization of services which in the past were not private is unclear.  But in any case Arriva gave the staff on the trains a new dress code:  No shorts, only long pants or skirts.  Shorts were allowed before Arriva took over.

What happened then, according to the yle site?  It has been very hot in Sweden recently, and according to one train driver the temperature inside his compartment rose to over 90 degrees.  More than ten men working the line have chosen to come to work in skirts.  They are cooler in the heat and the dress code allows them.  You can watch a video of a couple of skirt-wearing men at the site.

When I decided to write about this I tried to find an English language source.  The one I found gives a slightly different story:

Male staff on Stockholm’s commuter trains have begun wearing skirts to circumvent a ban on shorts as sweltering heat hit the Swedish capital this week.
Around 15 male train drivers and other staff wore skirts this week on the suburban Roslagsbanan train service, where temperatures inside the carriages can reach 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), transport company Arriva said on Sunday.
“Our policy is that you have to look well dressed and proper when representing Arriva, and that means trousers if you’re a man and a skirt if you’re a woman, but no shorts,” Arriva spokesman Tomas Hedenius told AFP.
“But if there’s a man who is keen to wear women’s clothing, such as a skirt, we have said that’s okay,” he added.
The company could change its policy this autumn after receiving feedback from its employees.
It focuses on the idea that skirts are for women and trousers are for men and then goes on to explaining Swedish gender policies and so on, and it lets Hedenius imply that the men who are doing this want to wear "women's clothing" rather than something cool in the summer.

The differences are subtle in the two interpretations, but it made me think how very easily we can be influenced by that very subtlety.

As far as I can tell, the point the men who wear skirts wanted to make is that skirts are more comfortable in the heat than long pants. 

The reverse point is equally obvious but not stated:  Skirts can be extremely uncomfortable during the long and cold Scandinavian winter and shouldn't be required for either sex because of that.  One engine driver also mentions that the skirts are cumbersome for certain tasks which require climbing, say.  If the company really requires women to wear them all the time, it may keep women out of certain jobs.

Then there's the fact that all this is about what employers can demand from their employees, that dress codes affect the comfort and even the health of the workers.