A new report has again raised the issue surrounding dress codes at work and whether different rules for men and women can be regarded as discriminatory.
In 2009 the College of Podiatry and the TUC called on employers to protect women at work by giving them a choice of footwear because of the long term problems high heels can cause. They said that around 2 million days a year are lost through sickness as a result of lower limb disorders and the study showed that the impact of high heels on feet includes:
- Throwing weight onto the ball of the foot, which may lead to callous, painful bunions, corns and deformity.
- Pushing the centre of mass in the body forwards, causing the spine to bend backwards to compensate. This can lead to back problems.
- The position of the foot in the shoe combined with an often-narrow heel width can cause the ankle to become unstable, resulting in ankle sprains.
- The calf muscle may shorten and tighten. Wearing high-heels for long periods – more than six months – may cause the calf muscle to become shortened all the time. The body compensates for this tightness in the calf-muscle by lowering the arch of the foot, or affecting the knee, hip or back.
Petition & the Joint Committee Report
Receptionist Nicola Thorp hit the headlines when she was sent home from work without pay in December 2015 for refusing to wear two inch heels as specified in the company’s dress code. Nicola’s story was widely reported and she launched a parliamentary petition to get the law changed. The petition read:
“It is still legal in the U.K. for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.”
The petition received over 150,000 signatures and the House of Commons Petitions Committee this week published a joint report with the Women and Equalities Committee. Having invited members of the public to send real life examples of dress code discrimination, the committee reported cases where women were asked to unbutton blouses, wear shorter skirts, wear make up, even certain shades of nail varnish or lipstick, and even being told what hair colour they should choose. Some of the stories specifically relating to high heels heard of women standing 8-10 hours per day, climbing to reach and carry boxes and expected to wear high, pointed shoes, again with different rules for male colleagues.
“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,” said Helen Jones, MP, chair of the Petitions Committee.
The joint report concluded that the Equality Act 2010 is not effective in protecting female workers from discrimination, saying:
“Dress codes which require women to wear high heels for extended periods of time are damaging to their health and wellbeing in both the short and the long term.”
“It is clear that many employees do not feel able to challenge the dress codes they are required to follow, even when they suspect that they may be unlawful. We therefore recommend that the Government develop an awareness campaign to help workers to understand how they can make formal complaints and bring claims if they believe that they are subject to discriminatory treatment at work, including potentially discriminatory dress codes.”
A recent study from employer advisory service ELAS found that of the 28% of women who told them they wear high heels regularly to work, 76% do so through personal choice, but 9% do so either because it was it the dress code or because they ‘felt it was necessary’.
ELAS Group Operations Director Danny Clarke says:
“The results of our survey clearly show that while most women wear heels to work out of personal choice, others are told that they need to or feel that they should. One respondent said it was noted by their employer when they wore flat shoes. Most employees are unaware of any health and safety guidance provided by their employers regarding footwear in the workplace – those that were aware typically worked in industries where heels were restricted e.g. the police, construction or airline industries.
“5% of respondees said they have had an accident at work while wearing high heels. The majority of these were trips and blisters although one person had broken their toes. What’s more concerning, however, is the potential for long term injury as a result of wearing high heels for any length of time.”
Clarke’s advice to employers is to rethink whether or not heels are really necessary:
“With research highlighting the long-term musculoskeletal damage which can occur as a result of wearing high heels it may be time for employers to review their dress codes. Taking into account employers’ duty of care to protect their employees’ health in the workplace, I would suggest that they consider looking at whether or not the requirement to wear high heels is necessary. If employees spend the majority of the day on their feet, are required to carry heavy or awkward loads or walk any kind of distance then we would recommend this be taken into account.
“While there is nothing wrong with wanting to maintain a professional image in the workplace, employers should look at whether they are putting employees at risk. A comprehensive risk assessment should look at whether there is an impact on an employee from wearing high heels in a particular job, whether an employee has back pain or other medical issues and how they might be affected in the role. If issues aren’t identified before an employee starts work then it is possible that the employer might contribute to the employee’s back pain. Likewise if an employer requires employees to wear high heels purely for aesthetic reasons then they could be at risk of a discrimination claim. Where dress codes are implemented in workplaces where employees are not client-facing then consideration should be given as to the necessity of this.”
Citation Professional Solutions have published a helpful infographic for employers which will help guide them as to what is an appropriate dress policy. Laura Barnett, Employment Team Manager explained:
“Employers should have a dress code policy in place to staff are aware of what is acceptable attire for work. If there is no policy, then employers should at least make it clear what is the appropriate dress code and should apply this consistently across the workforce. It is important that the dress code doesn’t disadvantage employees of a particular sex or religion.”
Reactions from HR professionals
Gilbert: “Financial consequences are not sufficient”
Eleanor Gilbert, senior associate at Winckworth Sherwood, said:
“The report, while helpful in shining a light on this common issue, is unlikely to trigger a change to the law. What is more likely is the publication of formal guidance to employers explaining when a dress code may cross the line and breach the Equality Act.
“The report raises an interesting point about financial consequences not being sufficient to deter employers from discriminating against employees – where an employee brings a successful claim while still employed, the Tribunal can only award ‘injury to feelings’ damages which is limited and the average award is usually around £5,000. However, this applies to all types of discrimination and situations, so it is difficult to see the justification for the Government making an exception for dress code discrimination”.
Kandola: “If instructions given to only women, gender bias is at play”
Professor Binna Kandola, OBE, an expert on diversity and gender discrimination in the workplace at Pearn Kandola, comments:
“Neither men nor women should be unfairly asked to dress in a certain way within the workplace. If both men and women are instructed to be smart, then this should not be a problem. However, if instructions are given to women (i.e. you must wear make-up and heels), but not to men (i.e. you must wear a tie), then gender bias is at play.
Interestingly, women are more likely to be stereotyped in the workplace if they dress in more ‘feminine’ ways. It was not that long ago that female police officers had to wear skirts and carry a handbag. They were also far less likely to be assigned to key operational roles. Unfortunately, their dress had contributed to the stereotype that men were stronger and more active.
Furthermore, some companies might demand a particular way of dressing, and then blame it on their customers. This is a convenient way of not taking responsibility for their own views and should not be used as a reason to act unfairly; companies can also guide their customers to do the right thing.”
Biggins: “Employers need to become more open minded.”
Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of CV-Library said:
“According to research conducted amongst our extensive candidate database, 13.7% of UK professionals have been advised by a manager that their appearance is unacceptable for the workplace. It’s a sad reality that in today’s working world, we are all judged by our appearance, but this should not be restrictive, especially for women. A place of work is a professional environment and interestingly, our research found that the majority of workers believe that employers should instate a strict dress code at work. But, it’s important to remember that this can be achieved without forcing employees to wear certain items, especially when it comes to women and high-heeled shoes.
“Furthermore, our study found that 13.1% of workers believe that their appearance is holding them back in their careers, with 17% admitting that they’ve felt uncomfortable when expressing personal style at work. While there will always be certain boundaries around what employees can and cannot wear at work, everybody should have the freedom to express themselves in their own way and employers must become more open minded when it comes to dress codes in the workplace.”