Employer Branding

High Heels and Discriminatory Dress Codes in the Workplace

Force a person to wear high heels, to wear makeup, to wear a skirt, to straighten their hair – Ok. Now apply these demands to men, and that’s where the problem lies; dress codes disproportionately target women.

Discriminatory dress codes and specifically the case of forcing women to wear high heels have recently had the much-needed attention, but what’s behind the commotion, and why should it matter to you?

The case of the high heels

When London receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home without pay in December 2015 for refusing to wear a pair of high heels, it sparked her petition calling for a law to ban companies from requiring women to wear high heels at work. The petition attracted 152,420 signatures, and subsequently triggered The Women and Equalities Committee and the Government’s Petitions Committee to launch an inquiry inviting the public to share more cases of discriminatory dress codes. The committees were inundated with hundreds of examples of women who spoke about the pain and long-term effects caused by wearing high heels in the workplace, along with stories from women who were told to dye, straighten their hair, wear revealing clothes, and constantly re-apply makeup. These discriminatory dress codes simply sexualise and exploit women.

Is it legal?

Despite the reports revealing how existing laws are failing to protect employees from discrimination at work, in April 2017 the UK government rejected Nicola Thorp’s petition to stop employers from requiring staff to wear high heels.

So as it stands, the law allows employers to establish different dress codes for men and women if there is an “equivalent level of smartness”. They can dismiss staff who fail to adhere to “reasonable” dress code demands, so long as they have been allowed enough time to buy the right clothes.

New legal framework is sadly needed, but when the law is failing employees, the power for change then comes back into the hands of employers.

Employers and dress codes

It may not be discrimination to require employees to dress professionally and appropriately for the workplace, but the question needs to be asked: what is “appropriate” and why is it “professional”?

Projecting a professional image through dress codes is perfectly valid, and certain industries understandably require a level of upkept appearance, but this should never be at the compromise of an employee’s health. Research has seen a direct correlation between the continued use of high heels and conditions like bunions and stress fractures. High heels are a health and safety issue, so surely smart, flat shoes would be more professional and appropriate?

The inches of a woman’s heels, or the colour of her hair won’t make the best worker she can be, but rather to feel comfortable and confident in her own shoes (figuratively and literally), and of course to feel valued.

Because perhaps even more damaging, is the underlining message it tells women. The requirements for high heels, skirts, or make-up are objectifying, and tells a woman that her appearance is more important than her experience, skills, thoughts or voice. This can have a significant impact on how a woman views her own capabilities and career prospects, deterring her from wanting to progress.

Discriminatory work practices hold women back, and they hold your company back (to somewhere in the 1950’s). So let’s all take the step forward… maybe without the heels.