The government has rejected calls to introduce a new law banning companies from forcing women to wear high heels at work.
Parliament debated the issue after an online petition set up by Nicola Thorp, a receptionist for Portico who was sent home for wearing flat shoes rather than 2-4in heels, attracted more than 152,000 signatures. The government initially responded to the petition on 24 June 2016 saying:
“Employers are entitled to set dress codes for their workforce but the law is clear that these dress codes must be reasonable. That includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law. Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear.”
Parliament’s subsequent investigation into dress codes found that many women, specifically those working in hospitality, retail, tourism, corporate services and agency work, were required to adhere to strict, potentially discriminatory, dress codes. The investigation further found that many of those who felt their dress codes were discriminatory were too insecure to raise the issue with their employers out of fear of reprisal.
Nonetheless, following the debate in Parliament this year, the government concluded that the current law is in fact satisfactory. Under the law as it stands, a dress code has the potential to be discriminatory in two ways. A policy which applies to all staff, male and female alike, could be indirectly discriminatory if it puts female staff at a disadvantage; for example, a female version of a prescribed uniform could cost more to buy. On the other hand, particular rules which apply only to women could be directly discriminatory if they mean that women are put in a more difficult position than men as a result of their sex. An example of this could be another rule Portico reportedly imposed on female staff: that finger nails be painted one of a selected range of shades and repainted periodically as soon as they chip. A requirement that female staff wear high heels is potentially directly discriminatory, as the same requirement is not imposed on men.
Whilst the government did not feel the need to create additional legislation, it recognised that more needed to be done to promote awareness of the issues surrounding dress codes in the workplace and discrimination. Therefore, it has promised to issue guidelines to women and employers which will hopefully prevent discriminatory practices occurring in the workforce.
Fathima Hussain is a Paralegal at leading employment law firm BDBF.