The U.K. Parliament today debated whether workplace rules requiring women to wear heeled shoes counts as illegal gender discrimination. The issue comes before British Members of Parliament (MPs) after more than 152,000 signed a petition requesting lawmakers “make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work.”
The petition was started by London temp worker Nicola Thorp after she was sent home for wearing flat shoes. Her employment agency, Portico, had a policy saying women must wear shoes with heels between two- and four-inches high. “It’s still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will,” states Thorp’s petition. “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.”
In a preliminary response, the U.K. Government Equality Office reaffirmed that employers could set dress codes but “these dress codes must be reasonable,” which “includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law.”
Last June, the House of Commons Petitions Committee began looking into the shoe situation, issuing a report on the findings in January 2017. “It has become clear in the course of our inquiry that this was not an isolated incident—and nor is the problem confined to high heels,” the cross-party group of MPs determined. “We heard from hundreds of women who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up.”
But it’s hard to know how to take these allegations with the little detail provided. There are clearly many contexts in which asking female professionals to dress more provocatively or style their hair and makeup a certain way would be highly inappropriate, but there are also plenty of particular sectors where this is not so. As long as any such demands are divulged clearly up front and applied evenly among relevant employees, it hardly seems like a matter for much collective concern.
This is not to say that employee dress-code policies are never worth challenging. But these isolated cases could surely be better resolved—and with much less collateral damage—through targeted action like employee organizing or public shaming campaigns than deputizing British bureucrats to play eye-shadow police and stilletto patrol. The Petitions Committee, however, sees things differently. In its report, it recommends more monitoring of private business dress-codes by the national government, higher penalties for companies that commit dress-code discrimination, and more public-awareness campaigns about the issue “targeted at employers, workers and students.”