Language selector

Not on the menu: OHRC inquiry report on sexualized and gender-based dress codes in restaurants

Page controls

Page content

Approved by the Ontario Human Rights Commisssion: March 2017
Available in various formats on request


Since mid-2015, many restaurant workers have raised concerns about sexualized and gender-specific dress codes affecting front-of-house staff in the restaurant sector. Current or former restaurant staff have described their experiences and concerns in the media and social media, started a petition, held events and made human rights and workplace safety complaints.[1]

Restaurant work is an important source of employment: in Ontario, restaurants employ 440,000 people, or 6.4% of the workforce, and more than one in five Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 work in the industry.[2] It is often an entry point for newcomers into the Canadian job market, and an accessible career option for many others, as most positions do not require specialized training or higher education.[3]

However, restaurant work can also be precarious, with low wages, reliance on tips and part-time hours. Women are more likely than men to hold precarious employment[4] and are more likely to experience poverty.[5] Hosts, bartenders and servers in Ontario are predominantly female, and more than one-third are young women under age 24.[6] Factors such as lack of awareness of human rights laws, age, recent immigration, uncertain employment, reliance on tips, low rates of unionization, and the prevalence of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the restaurant industry can increase worker vulnerability.[7] This means that many employees are afraid to complain about dress codes, sexual harassment or other discrimination, and that discriminatory environments and staff complaints are often not appropriately addressed.[8] Some workers fear reprisal for raising concerns about dress codes and other sexual harassment:

“I don’t see how to enforce it without people losing their jobs.”[9]

“Employers get away with exploiting people or maintaining questionable conditions of employment because people need the jobs.”[10]

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) decided to take action on sexualized dress codes because of the systemic nature of the problem and the impacts based on Human Rights Code (Code) grounds such as age, sex, creed, gender identity and gender expression. The OHRC is also concerned that workers who object to wearing gender-specific or sexualized dress may be at greater risk of losing employment or not being hired, which may contribute to increased rates of poverty. As well, recent high-profile reports of sexual harassment and discrimination, such as allegations against media and political figures, have led to greater dialogue – in the restaurant industry and across the country – about the barriers women face in the workplace.

The OHRC welcomed the opportunity to contribute to this dialogue, and to work with restaurant associations and leading restaurant companies to reduce discrimination and problematic practices that can lead to discrimination, and make workplaces in this sector more inclusive.

[1] For example, see CBC Marketplace report: (retrieved Feb. 21, 2017); petition “Stop sexist dress codes in restaurants” with more than 31,600 signatures (as of Feb. 21, 2017); a one-day conference (see Corey Mintz, “What went down at the Kitchen Bitches conference,” Toronto Life, Sept. 4, 2015).

[2] Restaurants Canada Infographic, “Ontario’s Restaurant Industry,” updated March 19, 2014 (retrieved Feb. 21, 2017).

[3] Interviews with restaurant industry experts.

[4] Andrea M. Noack & Leah F. Vosko, Precarious jobs in Ontario: Mapping dimensions of labour market insecurity by workers’ social location and context (2011) Commissioned by the Law Commission of Ontario, available online at (retrieved: Feb. 25, 2016).     

[5] See, for example, Vineeth Sekharan, “Infographic: Canadian Women in Poverty” (2015) Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub (retrieved: Feb. 22, 2017); and Monica Townson, “Canadian women on their own are poorest of the poor,” Sept. 8, 2009 (retrieved Feb. 22, 2017).

[6] Data from the 2011 National Household Survey indicates that almost 75% of food and beverage servers, restaurant hosts and bartenders in Ontario are women, and 36.8% are women between the ages of 15 and 24 (Statistics Canada, no date). See 2011 National Household Survey: Data Tables. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011033. Last modified Jan. 7, 2016. Online: Statistics Canada (Retrieved: Feb. 25, 2016).

[8] OHRC Backgrounder and interviews (Ibid.).

[9] Email to the OHRC.

[10] Interview, June 13, 2016.    

Book Prev / Next Navigation