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High heels and short skirts: for work not leisure


high heels at work, committees report, unlawful dress codes, Nicola Thorp, petitionWomen, clothing, work and pain – and glaring double standards.

The Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee published a report on women, high heels and workplace dress codes recently.

The inquiry that lead to this report was triggered by a petition started by Nicola Thorp, after she was sent home from work, without pay, for refusing to wear high heels.

And although the government has said that the dress code imposed on Nicola Thorp was unlawful the Committees heard that requirements for women to wear high heels and other forms of discriminatory dress codes at work remain widespread.

‘Other forms’ included women being told to undo top buttons, wear make-up, wear short skirts…

The report concluded that the Equality Act 2010 is not yet fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination, and has called for the government to take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act.

It also recommends that the government reviews this area of the law and, if necessary, asks Parliament to amend it.

And it calls for more effective remedies – such as increased financial penalties – for employment tribunals to award against employers who breach the law, in order to provide an effective deterrent.

This particular response though has come under fire, with TUC General Secretary Francis O’Grady voicing what the rest of us feel: “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.”

And adding, to make the point clear: “If ministers are serious about enforcing equality legislation then they should scrap tribunal fees immediately.”

The Committees’ report also recommends that the government introduce guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers, workers and students, to improve understanding of the law and workers’ rights.

Kind of assuming that employers don’t know what they are asking women to do.

The report included remarks on the health impact of wearing high heels, including medical evidence, which concluded that ‘Dress codes which require women to wear high heels for extended periods of time are damaging to their health and wellbeing in both the short and the long term’ and non-compliance with the existing law; and that ‘The Equality Act is clear in principle in setting out what constitutes discrimination in law. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in some sectors of the economy’.

And ‘It is clear that many employees do not feel able to challenge the dress codes they are required to follow, even when they suspect that they may be unlawful’.

Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “This inquiry reinforces the point that many employers do not see it as a priority to be aware of their legal obligations in this area and in practice individual employees are not in a position to take action to ensure their employers comply with the law.

“Whilst the level of tribunal fees is one factor, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission [EHRC] also needs to find new ways to make the law bite.

“Employers appear to risk non-compliance because the likelihood of any serious consequences are minimal.

“The EHRC must find new ways to support anti-discrimination test cases and appeals, so that the burden does not fall too heavily on individual women – especially those who already feel their employment position is precarious.”

The petition set up by Nicola Thorp to  make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work now has over 152,000 signatures, and will be debated in Parliament on 6 March.

Helen Jones MP, chair of the Petitions Committee, said: “It’s not enough for the law to be clear in principle – it must also work in practice.

“The government has said that the way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay.

“It’s clear from the stories we’ve heard from members of the public that Nicola’s story is far from unique.

“The government must now accept that it has a responsibility to ensure that the law works in practice as well as in theory.

“By accepting our recommendations, the government could help employers and employees alike to avoid unlawful discrimination.”

To read the report’s conclusions and recommendations, click here.

To read the full report click here.

And as Chloe Hamilton, writing for iNews, in an article with the headline ‘Short skirts: professional in the workplace, provocative in the club’, pointed out, we have a glaring double standard here.

‘A woman who wears a short skirt and high heels on a night out is asking to be raped. But if the same woman wears a short skirt and high heels to a meeting, she’s abiding by society’s dress code.

‘What would happen, I wonder, if this fictional woman was sexually assaulted as she walked home from work in the skirt and high heels that were deemed appropriate for a board meeting?’

Or any kind of work.

‘Where,’ Hamilton continued, ‘would people like [Sky News presenter Stephen] Dixon [who suggested recently that drunk women wearing short skirts should take partial responsibility for sexual assault] lay their urgent, feverish blame then? At the door of her company for insisting on a sexualised dress code? At the feet of her attacker who was “provoked” by the sight of a woman’s figure? Or with her?’

Three guesses. But yes.

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