Future of Work

The government must enforce the law properly to ban sexist dress rules at work that discriminate against women, say MPs. The demand has come from two parliamentary committees, for Petitions and for Women and Equalities.

Their report follows the experience of London receptionist Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from work last May for not wearing high heels. The joint report of the two committees, entitled High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, found that the Equality Act 2010 should ban discriminatory dress rules at work, but in practice the law is not applied properly to protect workers of either gender.

Helen Jones, MP, chair of the Petitions Committee, said: “The government has said that the way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay.

“It’s clear from the stories we’ve heard from members of the public that Nicola’s story is far from unique,” she added.

‘Law fails employees’

The problem was exposed when Ms Thorp was sent home from her job at a London office of the big accountancy firm PwC. She refused to obey the then rules of her employment agency, Portico, that she should wear shoes with heels that were between two and four inches high.

Ms Thorp argued that wearing them all day would be bad for her feet, and that her male colleagues were not asked to follow the same rules on their clothes.

When the two committees looked into the issue, they were inundated with complaints from women who said they had been victimised by sexist rules about the sort of clothes they could wear at work.

The examples of unlawful dress rules extended much further than just shoes, with the committee hearing about demands that some women should dye their hair blond, wear revealing clothes or re-apply make up frequently.

“This may have started over a pair of high heels, but what it has revealed about discrimination in the UK workplace is vital, as demonstrated by the hundreds of women who came forward via the committees’ online forum,” Ms Thorp said.

“The current system favours the employer, and is failing employees,” she said.

‘Enforce the law’

The report of the MPs recommends that a publicity campaign be launched to ensure that employers know their legal obligations, and also that workers know how they can complain effectively.

But its key recommendation is that the existing law should be enforced more vigorously, with employment tribunals being given the power to apply bigger financial penalties.

The report suggests that guilty employers should be required to pay compensation to every worker affected by their discriminatory rules.

“The Equality Act is clear in principle in setting out what constitutes discrimination in law,” it said. “Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in some sectors of the economy.

“We call on the government to review this area of the law and to ask parliament to change it, if necessary, to make it more effective,” the MPs added.

The committees heard expert evidence that requirements to wear high heeled shoes were damaging to women’s health.

Women said high heels impaired their performance and made them feel humiliated or sexualised. Some said they struggled to wear heels because of medical conditions including:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Arthritis and osteoarthritis
  • Spinal deformities or other back problems
  • Flat feet, wide feet, small feet.

The College of Podiatry pointed out that high heels are very painful to many women, in some cases causing pain within just 10 minutes.

Such shoes can also be disabling if worn for a long time, the College warned.

Portico, Ms Thorp’s then employer, said: “We fully support the recommendations within the report and welcome the debate in Parliament in March.”

“When this issue was raised last year we immediately updated our uniform guidance.”

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