At Rituals, only women should wear make-up – is it discriminatory?

When Margot Pijnenburg started working for the cosmetics chain Rituals, the company gave her a ‘welcome bag‘. The bag contained, among other things, a box with eye shadow, mascara and red lipstick and nail polish from the company. A nice touch for new employees, but not without significance. She was supposed to wear the products during work as well.

It was abrasive, Pijnenburg thought. Although she often uses makeup, she did not want to be forced to do so. Because she sometimes suffers from irritated eyes, and then she prefers not to wear mascara. And because she prefers not to use varnish. “But when I got to work, the store manager said: put on some nail polish before you start.”

What struck her most was that Ritual’s clothing and style regulations (1.1 billion euros turnover, 4,600 employees) did not apply to everyone. After her appointment, it quickly became clear that the company only required female employees to wear the brand’s makeup during store hours. Male staff were also given such a welcome bag but were allowed to make their own choice.

This Tuesday, the Department of Human Rights will consider whether the company is guilty of gender discrimination. Pijnenburg brought the case before the institute after she left Rituals – she went abroad to study human rights and democratization. After leaving the cosmetics chain, she also discussed her concerns with a human resources manager. Although he responded positively, Pijnenburg says, the distinction between female and male employers did not disappear from the rules.

Employers can make demands on the appearance of their employees, on clothes as well as hairstyle or make-up. However, discriminating between female and male employees on the basis of their gender is prohibited by law, whether in terms of pay, employment or bonuses. There are exceptions: very occasionally, employers are allowed to ‘discriminate’, for example by only employing women for a while to ensure a more equal balance between men and women in the organization.

The College must determine whether Rituals makes a legitimate exception with its ‘Styling Standards’. The court hearing is Tuesday, the verdict will follow later. A decision by the institute, an independent human rights monitor in the Netherlands, is not binding: it is not a court. But in more than 80 percent of the cases, a decision is followed by the board, the body states in its annual report.


Ritual’s style guide contains a dozen rules to ensure that employees in the chain look ‘representative’ with a ‘fresh and modern look’. For example, employees are not allowed to wear visible piercings, tattoos or jewelry. Only small earrings or wedding rings are allowed. In addition, everyone must wear company clothes. For women it is a dress or pants, for men pants.

With regard to the use of make-up, the guide does not explicitly state that women are given less freedom than men. But in practice it is different, Rituals argues in his defense to the college. “Women are expected to wear make-up during working hours, and if they do not, they will be held accountable. Men are allowed to wear make-up, but are not obliged to do so. ” But conversely, there are also specific rules for men, the company notes. They need to trim nicely and care for their beard.

The style rules must, among other things, ensure that customers find the same store and atmosphere in each branch, it sounds from Rituals. Employees are also “brand ambassadors”. Suppliers act as ‘mannequins’ for the products the chain sells. “A better model for cosmetic products […] is not there. A mannequin or a picture does not have the same effect. ”

In a response, Rituals says that the discussions with Pijnenburg in recent months have led to an adjustment of the style guide, also after consultation with, among others, a working group on inclusion and diversity. Because not all employees feel “comfortable” wearing “pronounced make-up”, employees are now also allowed to wear neutral colors, such as natural nail polish and nude lipstick.


An employer must be able to justify clothing rules in the workplace, says employment law lawyer Suzanne Meijers: a helmet for safety or gloves for hygiene. Companies are also allowed to ask employees to wear certain clothing because of ‘representativeness’. It must be in proportion to the type of business and the work someone is doing. Do you want to ban rock flaps in the summer? Such a ban makes no sense in a call center. But in an office where customers go in and out, things are different. ”

Also read: Can your boss ask you to put on pants?

The rules must also, as far as possible, be the same for all employees in the same position, says Meijers. She wonders if Rituals basically require anything different from women than from men: in the end, both should look ‘representative’. “Although you can argue again: when does anyone look representative?”

This is exactly what irritates Pijnenburg by Ritual’s precepts: the underlying assumption that a woman would not look representative without make-up. According to her, women are “set to have higher representativeness requirements than men”.

Such things are always closely linked to what the social norm is. In 2010, KLM and a flight attendant faced each other in court. The airline wanted to fire the stewardess because she did not comply with the style and dress code with her uncovered tattoos and cropped hair. The judge agreed with KLM. “Close shaving of the head in women is not yet so widely accepted or customary in society that such a haircut can not be considered extravagant,” the judge reasoned, among other things.

The question, however, is whether a judge would reach the same conclusion twelve years later, says attorney Meijers. After all, social norms change over time. “Tattoos, for example, have really become mainstream, you are more of an exception if you do not have one. Who still finds tattoos scary? And also short hair: is it still very special? ”

In Pijnenburg’s view, the notion that women must wear make-up in order to be representative is a stereotype that no longer holds “in this present”. According to Rituals, make-up is still seen “in society” as “cosmetics used predominantly by women.”

Anyone who starts working for Rituals knows what he or she is getting into, the company claims. It is already discussed during the application that candidates must have ‘affinity’ ‘for the Rituals brand’ and the products the company sells. Just as the company operates in an industry where it is “very common” for staff to act as a “business card” for the company. “A vegetarian will also not be inclined to work for a meat processing company,” Rituals says in his defense.

Pijnenburg does not think it is a particularly strong metaphor, she says. To begin with, a butcher only sells meat, while Rituals also sells other products besides make-up. And: “I once worked in a butcher shop myself, while I hardly eat meat. The difference: a butcher does not force his employee to eat meat. Rituals oblige his staff to something. ”

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