There are many news items that have recently made me question whether we are living in the 21st century.
One such example was the revelation that it is still legal in the UK to require that women wear high heels in the workplace. This all came to light when Nicola Thorp, who has since started a government petition to make it illegal for a company to require that women wear high heels at work, shared her story with the BBC about her first day at major accounting firm PwC. You can find the petition here.
Ms Thorp was told by Portico, the employment agency that runs PwC’s reception, that she would be sent home without pay if she refused to go out and buy heels. To add insult to injury, the firm also specified that the heels be between two to four inches high. Ms Thorp’s story has shone the spotlight on antiquated laws and highlighted the fact that discriminatory dress codes remain rife in the retail and tourism industries. Some of these practices require women to wear non-opaque tights and to not have visible regrowth from hair dying.
Under current UK legislation, employers can dismiss employees who fail to abide by “reasonable” dress code standards. But is requiring women to wear shoes that can cause serious and ongoing health issues, such as damage to foot joints and ongoing lower back, knee, ankle and hip pain a reasonable standard?
Ms Thorp’s petition that would allow women to have the option of wearing flat formal shoes at work has received 152,420 signatures and was debated in Parliament on 6 March 2017. While the debate is non-binding, the government committed to take action to eliminate corporate dress codes that apply to women but not men, including high heel requirements. The government’s position is:
Company dress codes must be reasonable and must make equivalent requirements for men and women. This is the law and employers must abide by it.
Employers are entitled to set dress codes for their workforce but the law is clear that these dress codes must be reasonable. That includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law. Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear.
The Government takes this issue very seriously and will continue to work hard to ensure women are not discriminated in the workplace by outdated attitudes and practices.”
Already, Ms Thorp’s petition has seen Portico amend their dress code which is now gender-neutral and no longer requires women to wear high heels.
In male-dominated industries, there are already enough barriers to entry into the workforce for women, without the imposition of gendered dress codes. While employers are entitled to require a certain standard of professionalism in their dress standards, there is a definitive line between smartness and sexism.