The shocking sexism of the last century dramatized in the popular television show Mad Men may not be such a thing of the past after all.
Just ask receptionist Nicola Thorp, who last week was sent home on her first day of work at the accountancy firm PwC for refusing to wear high heels.
Bosses gave her the opportunity to return to work if she left to buy heels that were part of the dress code, which stipulated that women must wear heels between two and four inches long.
Thorp continued in her refusal, and with good reason. Men, she pointed out to her boss, aren’t required to wear heels, nor is the footwear essential in enabling her to perform her job.
Much the opposite – her nine-hour shifts entailed escorting clients to meeting rooms in all parts of the building; she would have to be on her feet all day.
The health risks of wearing high heels are well-known. Long-term use of high heels can cause severe and chronic foot, knee and back pain and has even been linked to arthritis.
The storm of bad publicity the story brought on after Thorp started a petition, which in only days garnered more than 100,000 signatures, caused Portico, the agency employing her, to drop its heels policy.
Dress code laws
But while one company caved, many others have on their books similarly sexist dress codes – and vague laws mean they often can get away with it.
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.
Thompsons Solicitors outlines the law circumscribing dress codes in the UK and gives examples of cases in which dress codes were found to be discriminatory.
Nicola Thorpe’s story has put dress code laws back in the limelight. Because her petition, calling on forcing women to wear high heels at work to be made illegal, has received more than 100,000 signatures – as of writing, this figure has approached 140,000 – Parliament must consider the issue for debate.
In the meantime, however, workers have little recourse from the law when faced with sexist dress codes – and so they have to work through other avenues to realise change. In the case of British Airways cabin crew, they successfully negotiated with their bosses through their trade union, Unite.
In February of this year, British Airways finally dropped its ban on allowing mixed-fleet female cabin crew to wear trousers. Before, only their male counterparts were allowed to wear trousers.
It was a hard-won fight on the back of a long-running campaign, explained Unite regional officer Matt Smith, who was behind the campaign.
“It was ridiculous that 46 years after the ‘Made in Dagenham’ women won the right to equal pay that companies like British Airways were still employing old fashioned views and treating women differently,” he said.
“British Airways’ stance was unbefitting of a modern airline in the modern age and demonstrates that Unite will not allow cases like this to go unchallenged.
“Not only is the choice to wear trousers a victory for equality it is also a victory for common sense and testament to the organising campaign of our members,” Smith noted.
“Female cabin crew no longer have to shiver in the cold, wet and snow of wintery climates, but also can be afforded the protection of trousers at destinations where there is a risk of malaria or the zika virus.”
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean explained that Unite is firmly committed in the fight against unfair work dress codes.
“Unite is campaigning with our members to change work uniform policies,” she said. “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. 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 congratulate those women who have refused to wear high heels and taken out grievances about outmoded uniforms. The answer must lie with employers sitting down with unions and agreeing better uniform policies.”