After being sent home for not wearing high heels on the first day of her new job at accountancy firm PwC, Nicola Thorp started a petition which in days garnered more than 150,000 signatures, as UniteLIVE reported last year.
The petition, which called on the government to ban employers from forcing employees to wear high heels, sparked a parliamentary investigation, the details of which were published today (January 25) in a new report.
The Petitions and Women and Equalities Committees called for evidence from the public to find out whether Thorp’s experience was in fact a widespread one.
The inquiry set up a web forum and received an astounding 730 responses in one week alone. The Committee also partnered with Mumsnet, which hosted a thread in which women were invited to share their experiences.
“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,” the report read.
“The government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful,” it added. “Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread.
“It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. We call on the government to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to change it, if necessary, to make it more effective.”
The health risks of wearing high heels on a long-term basis are well-documented and were highlighted in the report.
The College of Podiatry provided written evidence, noting that there is a “strong body of clinical evidence that significantly indicates the medical and disabling effects of wearing a high heel shoe over a prolonged amount of time.”
High heel health risks
A review of scientific literature in the report found that long-term high heel use can cause long-term changes to gait, which is linked to knee, hip and spine problems and osteoarthritis; stress fractures in foot bones from sustained body weight on the ball of the foot; bunions; blisters and skin lesions among other health problems.
Although the government has argued that what happened to Thorp was already illegal anyway, the report said that the evidence they gathered made it clear that existing law was not clear enough, nor has it properly been enforced.
As the law stands now, employers are allowed to compel their employees to dress in a certain way, as long as their requirements are deemed “reasonable”. Bosses can even have different dress requirements for men and women, as long as they’re of an equivalent standard.
For example, requiring men to wear a collar and tie to work would not be considered discriminatory towards men as long as women must dress to an equivalently smart level.
On the other hand, if women are, say, required to heels for the express purpose of appearing sexy, they have grounds for a discrimination case.
Stronger laws call
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady argued that access to justice was a key issue in discriminatory workplace dress codes.
“Far too many employers are still stuck in the past when it comes to dress codes,” she said. “It is unacceptable that in 2017 bosses are still forcing women to wear painful, inappropriate shoes and uniforms.
“Wearing high heels on a regular basis can cause foot, knee and back problems. High heels and make-up should be a choice, not a condition of the job.
“But with employment tribunals costing up to £1,200 – even if you’re on the minimum wage – many women can’t afford to challenge sexist policies,” O’Grady added. “If ministers are serious about enforcing equality legislation then they should scrap tribunal fees immediately.”
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean said that Unite has long been in workplaces campaigning against unfair work uniform policies.
“Our members want to have uniforms that are appropriate for the job; keep us safe; that can be adapted if we become pregnant; that fit and are designed for women’s body shapes; and reflect our age, diversity and religion,” she said. “Our members should be given choice in whether to wear trousers or high heels.”
“Corporate image should never be put above our dignity and safety at work or be tainted by sex discrimination from the 1970s,” she added.
“Our safety needs are paramount – personal protective equipment should be gender sensitive and the correct size.
“We welcome this parliamentary report and urge the government to consider the shocking evidence women have given regarding discriminatory dress codes,” Endean went on to say. “The laws in place are not enough and we agree with the TUC that employment tribunal fees are obstructing access to justice on this issue for far too many women – they must be scrapped now.
“Until fees are scrapped and laws on discriminatory dress codes are made stronger, the answer must lie also with employers sitting down with unions and agreeing better uniform policies.”