02 February, 2017
Following the High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes report, released this week, MPs say enforcement is needed to ban sexist dress rules that discriminate against women at work. This report was subsequent to a petition by London receptionist Nicola Thorp who was sent home from her temping job at Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) in 2015 when she did not wear heels. Her petition against this sexist discrimination gathered 150,000 signatures and called for an end to the need to wear heels for work, as there is no such rule in place that requires men to wear such uncomfortable clothing. She argues that the current system not only favours men, but also favours the employer rather than the employee, who are failed by the fact that this discrimination is allowed to continue.
The report was a joint effort by the parliamentary committees for both Petitions and for Women and Equalities. It found that the Equality Act 2010 is not being applied properly, as it should stop this from happening and protect workers of both genders. Whilst these discriminations do apply to both genders, the report looks in detail at the issues women face in the workplace, which included being made to wear heels, shorter skirts, unbuttoned blouses or having certain nail varnish colours and make up dictated to them. The dress code for Portico, the temp agency that sent Nicola Thorp home, specified that female employees should reapply make up throughout the day, specifically lipstick, blusher, mascara, eyeshadow and foundation. It also specified nail varnish colours, the thickness that hosiery could be and that no visible roots were allowed for those with dyed hair. In the wake of the scandal surrounding Miss Thorp’s petition they have now revised this dress code. However, the committee found that they were ‘inundated’ with reports from women who experienced similar issues in other companies. This included retail workers who were asked to wear shorter skirts and unbuttoned blouses for male Christmas shoppers. Nicola Thorp also says she experienced sexism such as this at another firm in Euston when she was asked to wear revealing clothes such as tighter items of clothing and shorter skirts. The Committees also spoke about how requiring women to wear heels for long periods of time is ‘damaging to their health and wellbeing in both the short and the long term’.
Helen Jones, MP and Chair of the Petitions Committee, spoke to BBC Women’s Hour about the report. She argued that discrimination is widespread in areas such as hospitality, temping and also cabin crew on aircrafts. Often in jobs that are filled with young women who are vulnerable as a result of short-term or zero hour contracts, or who are in non-unionised workplaces, so they are easy to dispose of and it is therefore easier for employers to exploit them. This was discussed further in the report itself, which found that employees ‘do not feel able to challenge the dress codes they are required to follow, even when they suspect that they may be unlawful.’ Whilst the equality act is clear on what constitutes discrimination, in some sectors or the economy discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace. Helen Jones discusses how if a dress code is unfair to one particular gender then that counts as indirect discrimination. However, this can be justified by an employer who can argue that the indirect discrimination is a reasonable necessity in the pursuit of a legitimate aim. For example in jobs that do require specific items of clothing such as steel cap boots in building work. The problem is that these aims aren’t defined properly in law and so there is a great risk in going to a tribunal. She argues therefore that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission should be taking more test cases that the law becomes properly defined.
Helen Jones argues that the government’s response to the issues hasn’t addressed the problem of dress codes as they seem to believe it defined more clearly in law than it truly is. She argues further that they are therefore ignoring how these sexist dress codes feed into an atmosphere in the workplace where it becomes acceptable for managers to make comments about the bodies of female members of staff, or women are subject to unwanted attention from customers. She suggests therefore that the issue is wider than just wearing heels, it is part of an attitude toward women at work which values how they look, rather than their skills, which is demeaning. She also argues that it’s also ageist and disablist as dress codes such as those discussed are aimed at young, able-bodied women and so there needs to be change to make dress codes more inclusive as well as less discriminatory.
The Petition and Women and Equalities Committees want the government to implement two things immediately as a result of the report. Firstly, a campaign of information by the government directed at employees, especially those who are in the sectors most at risk. This will help them understand how they can make formal complaints or bring a claim if they are subject to discrimination whilst at work, including potentially discriminating dress codes. Secondly, they recommend that the government’s equalities office should work with ACAS and the Health and Safety office to produce clearer guidelines for employers as the current information only produces blurred lines and makes it hard for both employer and employee to know what’s legal. For example there is very little information on the damaging impact of heels on the ACAS website, despite the fact that they can affect your balance in the long term, along with giving you problems such as bunions and stress fractures. They argue that there are currently not enough disincentives preventing employers from breaking the law and that the best way to do this is to ‘substantially increase’ the financial penalties for employers whom employment tribunals find to have broken the law. If neither of these options work the Committees recommends that the government legislate to clarify the law surrounding discrimination at work.
Andrew Cullwick, Head of Marketing at First4Lawyers, argues that more needs to be done to ensure everyone feels comfortable in the workplace in not only what they wear but how they are treated. Objectifying anyone can cause more than ill feeling, it can lead to depression and long term illness. The sort of discrimination highlighted in these examples should have been eliminated in the modern workplace many years ago.
If you feel that you have been the victim of discrimination at work our team are here to help, fill in our call back form or call us on the number at the top of your screen today for free initial advice.