MP’s have said that an investigation into work place dress codes has exposed widespread discrimination against women by ‘dodgy 1970’s workplace diktats’.
Nicola Thorp started a petition after she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. More than 152,000 people signed the petition, which sparked a parliamentary inquiry which was debated in Parliament this week.
The ensuing debate heard that the problem went beyond just heels. Women were regularly told to wear more revealing clothing to entice male customers, including being told to undo buttons on shirts while others had been told to bleach their hair blonde, wear scent, make up and even a certain shade of lipstick.
“It is fair to say that what we found shocked us. We found attitudes that belonged more – I was going to say in the 1950s but probably the 1850s might be more accurate, than in the 21st century,” said Labour MP Helen Jones, the chair of parliament’s petitions committee, which organised the debate.
Equalities Minister Caroline Dinenage has written to key trade bodies about the ‘outdated and sexist employment practices’ uncovered by the committee and urged them to reform any offices still retaining a “dodgy 1970s workplace diktat”. She says:
“We have had anti-discrimination laws in this area for more than 40 years, yet it is a safe bet that these sort of dress codes have existed under the radar, with female employees putting up with discrimination because that is the way things are.
“Shod in heels or flats, we are collectively putting our foot down and attitudes are changing. Women should not be expected to wear things that caused discomfort or expense that a male colleague would not.”
“With so much focus on gender equality it seems absurd that women still have to fight for the right to dress as they wish against the male view of how they believe a woman should dress. The Equality Act (and Sex Discrimination Act before that) ensures that women are protected from being treated less favourably on the grounds of their sex. Setting a specific dress code for women only is of course less favourable treatment and women are entitled to complain about it.”
Companies should take a close look at their dress codes and consider whether or not they are fair and equal to all employees.
There are three steps a company needs to consider when looking at a dress code:
Step 1 – What are you trying to achieve? Are you asking women to wear skirts or high heels because it makes them look better/sexier in your mind or is it to enhance a professional image in a client facing role?
Step 2 – Is what you are doing proportionate to what you are trying to achieve or are you going over the top?
Step 3 – Dress code should be balanced with other considerations such as health and safety, not just in the workplace but also for the person wearing the item of clothing. You wouldn’t expect someone to wear a tie around fast moving dangerous machines. Equally, forcing someone with a disability to wear high heels might exasperate conditions surrounding their disability.
“First impressions are important and we understand that companies want to portray a certain image. In a sophisticated smart environment then it can be argued high heels add to a professional appearance, however the same could be achieved with formal flat shoes. A company needs to look at why they want women to wear skirts or heels. If it’s because they feel women are better to look at then stop, however, if it’s for professional/smarter appearance then yes this can be fine if the person is working in a client facing role. The important thing is that the policy is reasonable and needs to be applied equally to men doing a similar role. While you would never ask a man to wear high heels you could require them to wear a tie or have a neatly trimmed beard rather than stubble yet it would be inappropriate to ask a woman in the role if she had shaved her legs.
“It’s clear that there is still a sexist attitude in some circles when it comes to dress codes. President Donald Trump caused an outcry when he told female staff in his administration that they need to always ‘dress like women’ when at work. While there is nothing wrong with requiring employees to be smartly dressed at work, there cannot be separate rules for men and women and sexist attitudes such as those revealed by the parliamentary committee belong firmly in the past.”