Sexist dress codes are ‘dehumanising and humiliating’, committee hears

House of Commons gathers evidence on workplace dress rules after high heels hit the headlines

The House of Commons has launched an inquiry into high heels and workplace dress codes after a disgruntled worker collected almost 150,000 signatures calling for a ban on employers being able to force women to wear heels to work.

Nicola Thorp started the e-petition after she turned up to work at the London office of accountants PwC – a position assigned through employee outsourcing firm Portico – in flat black shoes and was told to go and buy a pair of heeled shoes. She refused and was sent home without pay.

The joint inquiry, held by the House of Commons Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee, started this week with MPs hearing evidence from Thorp and former British Airways (BA) cabin crew member Ruth Campion, widening the debate from heels to the wider issue of gender dress codes and discrimination.

As Campion told the inquiry the dress code she was asked to adhere to during her two years at BA, she said it was “a bit dehumanising and humiliating to be made specifically to wear items of uniform that sexualised my appearance or enhanced my sexuality”.

She added: “We had to wear skirts and we couldn’t wear trousers. We had to wear our jackets buttoned up and little hats on our heads. General rules on make-up and nails were enforced. There was no option to challenge the rules. They were in writing and you would be picked up on even if you dared to omit one of them.”

Campion said staff were not allowed to wear cardigans because they were “a bit frumpy and not very attractive”. She said she was expected to wear heels on the way to work and to her hotel after disembarking, and was only allowed to change into flat shoes once on board the aircraft. “A couple of times I was told that I had to reapply my lipstick and I wasn’t wearing enough make-up. The particular one I got told off for a lot was that my hair was too frizzy. I do not understand how that affects the service you give on an aeroplane, but it is all part of an image.”

Thorp told the inquiry that her experience was not the first time she had encountered strict dress codes at work. “I have worked in retail before, notably at Harrods. Girls would be in tears because their feet were bleeding. These jobs tend to be slightly better paid than the minimum wage, so at the end of the day there is always going to be someone else who can take your place. That was what we were told.”

Simon Pratt, managing director of Portico, apologised to Thorp at the inquiry. He said that, following her complaint, Portico had quickly taken a decision to change its “outdated policy”.

A House of Commons spokesperson said the next step would be for the committees to hold more evidence sessions to gather further oral evidence, with dates and times yet to be confirmed.

Committee enquiries can lead to specific recommendations being made to the government, but Rakesh Patel, head of employment rights strategy at Thompsons Solicitors, said it was unlikely the inquiry would lead to a law change.

“The Equality Act is already there and provides protection against unlawful sex discrimination. There may be an amendment to the Code of Practice, which goes along with the Equality Act – there may be an example inserted regarding high heels.”

Patel said that he felt the requirement for Thorp to wear heels had probably been unlawful but she had taken longer than the three-month time limit to bring a tribunal claim.

“There is nothing to stop an employer having a dress code and nothing to stop an employer having different dress codes for women and men, provided they are equivalent. In this case, requiring a woman to wear high heels, I am not sure what aim that fulfils but it is not an aim for staff to be smart because women can be equally smart wearing flat shoes. There is no equivalent for men to wear something so potentially uncomfortable so I think potentially it was indirect unlawful sex discrimination – unless the employer could justify it,” he added.

Patel said employers should review their dress codes in light of this case. “Is the aim to require staff to project a certain image? If that is the case, make sure the rules are flexible enough for men and women so they can project that image, but in a way that one gender is not disadvantaged.”

Dress codes are just one aspect of persistent workplace sexism that is under the microscope in the July issue of People Management. Read our cover feature on sexism here.

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