Banks changing with the times
by ditching female-only uniforms 

Dressed in a business suit of her own choice, a woman, front, works at a teller window in the Kita-Urawa outlet
of Saitamaken Shinkin Bank in Saitama on May 6. (Yuri Nishida)

Read this article by Yuri Nishida for Asahi Shimbun

Published the 30th december 2022

Long-time customers to Kanako Katayama’s teller window at the Kita-Urawa branch of Saitamaken Shinkin Bank in Saitama might have noticed something amiss. 

Katayama, 36, a regular employee, was dressed in a white shirt, a black jacket and a pair of pants while some of other female staff members were wearing uniforms.

Katayama said she can now choose any style of clothing she likes, in a change from the bank’s dress code for women that dates back more than 50 years. 

An increasing number of banking institutions are shedding a decades-old tradition of requiring only female workers to wear uniforms in a drive to promote gender equality.

One such example is the shinkin bank (credit union), which had traditionally required female staff, except for managerial and sales positions, to wear a uniform consisting of a shirt available in pale blue and other colors, a vest, and a skirt or a pair of culottes.

But starting from May this year, regular staff can wear a suit or other business-appropriate attire. The same rule will be applied to part-time and temporary workers from May 2023.

According to a member of the human resources department, the rule to require only female workers to wear uniforms had apparently been in place for at least 50 years.

The provision regarding the lending of uniforms, which was established in 1969, states that uniforms are intended to maintain the grace and elegance to improve work performance.

But when the company asked its staff through the employees union, some said they felt uncomfortable seeing only female workers wearing uniforms, while others said they felt as if both insiders and outsiders of the company were seeing women in uniforms as subservient to men.

In fact, the majority were in favor of the abolishment.

“Uniforms can increase the sense of unity among staff and help them make the transition from private life to work, which is important when it comes to handling money,” said the member of the human resources department, citing the uniform’s advantage.

Still, the bank decided to abolish the uniform.

“We placed importance on eliminating the ‘subservient image’ of women in uniform,” the member said. “We can gain the trust of our customers as we think about how we can give them a favorable impression with the clothing we wear, instead of creating a unity in appearance by wearing uniforms.”

Aoki Shinkin Bank in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, abolished uniforms for female staff in 2021, and Kyoto Chuo Shinkin Bank in Kyoto followed suit this year.

IMAGE OF ‘APPROCHABLITY’

How did it become the norm for female staff to wear uniforms at banking institutions?

It’s due to the unique history of financial institutions, according to Makiko Habazaki, a gender studies associate professor at Saitama University’s Diversity Promotion Office.

Since the 1960s, during which Japan was experiencing rapid economic growth, banking institutions hired women in large numbers as tellers to promote their approachable image and attract new customers.

The female-only uniform rule was established from the viewpoint of male executives who thought it would be difficult for female staffers to buy business suits when they were paid less than their male colleagues, Habazaki pointed out.

But after the asset-inflated economy collapsed in the early 1990s, many banking institutions abolished uniforms for female staff to reduce costs between the late 1990s and 2000s.

However, many of them reinstated the rule, saying that there was little sense of unity and that they wanted to promote their corporate images.

In many cases, both male and female workers serving customers at the counters of post offices and mobile phone shops wear uniforms.

And now, financial institutions also started placing emphasis on social responsibility to realize gender equality, gaining steam to abolish uniforms again over the past five to six years, according to Koei Taniyama, a department head of the Nippon Uniform Center, a public interest foundation.

That said, “uniforms are still an effective way to improve corporate branding, and there will be another revival in interest at some point,” he added.

Among major banks, Mizuho Bank Ltd. has always required both its male and female staff working outside the teller windows to wear uniforms to prevent them from being mistaken for customers.

Among employees working inside the teller windows, only women are provided a uniform, but they can choose whether to wear it or not at their discretion.

Habazaki welcomes the increasingly diversified circumstances surrounding uniforms.

“The framework in which male workers go out on sales calls and female staff serve as tellers is reminiscent of Japan’s traditional gender division of work, and uniforms have played a role in visualizing that system and encouraging its wide spread,” the associate professor said.

She has high hopes that efforts to abolish the rule requiring only women to wear uniforms will take root.