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Unimpressive response to heels in the workplace

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Nicola Thorp, high heels in the work place, petition, government response, a cop outThe bottom line is that employers are still getting away with objectifying women at work.

The government announced last week that it will issue guidelines on sexist dress codes, but will not make it illegal for employers to insist that people wear heels to work.

Nicola Thorp started this recent discussion when she said she arrived on her first day at PwC in flat shoes but was told she had to wear shoes with a 2-4 inch heel.

Thorp, employed as a temporary worker by PwC’s outsourced reception firm, Portico, said she was sent home without pay after refusing to go out and buy a pair of heels.

She posted about her experience on Facebook and launched a petition calling for the law to be changed so companies can no longer force women to wear high heels to work. The petition received more than 126,000 signatures.

The agency has since said it was reviewing its guidelines.

Following the petition, MPs on the Women and Equalities select committee held an inquiry on workplace dress codes, which highlighted cases where women were made to wear heels even for jobs that included climbing ladders, carrying heavy luggage, carrying food and drink up and down stairs and walking long distances.

The inquiry also heard from women who were forced to constantly reapply makeup, wear shorter skirts or unbutton their blouses.

The committee called on the government to launch an awareness campaign targeting industries where sexist dress codes are particularly prevalent, including hotels and tourism, travel and airlines, temp agencies, the retail sector and hospitality.

In a response to the committee’s report, published last week, the government said the committee had uncovered practices “in some industries which appear sexist, unacceptable and potentially unlawful”, but that “the scope for redress already exists” under the Equality Act 2010.

Staff could complain to their bosses or to a tribunal, the government said.

Commenting on the announcement that the government will issue new guidance to improve compliance with laws that ban sexist dress codes at work, the TUC’s General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “This is a welcome step towards getting rid of sexist dress codes in the workplace.

“But the new guidance won’t be enough if working people can’t afford to take sexist bosses to a tribunal.

“The government should scrap employment tribunal fees so it no longer costs hundreds of pounds to access justice.

“This would mean workers can afford to put a stop to sexist dress codes in practice, as well as in legislation.”

Thorp told the Press Association: “It’s a shame they won’t change legislation. It shouldn’t be down to people like myself … I do think it is a little bit of a cop-out.”

She added: “As it stands, the Equality Act states an employer has the right to distinguish between a male and female dress code as long as they are not deemed to be treating one sex more or less favourably.

“Unfortunately, because of intrinsic sexism and the way in which business works in the UK, when employers are allowed the freedom to decide what is fair and unfair it tends to be women that lose out.”

Remarking on this, the Fawcett Society’s Chief Executive, Sam Smethers, said: “What we need to address is the objectification of women at work.

“Rather than being about a professional appearance, dress codes can be used as a way to require women to dress in a stereotypical or sexy way. There is nothing smart about that.

“Fawcett has launched a sex discrimination law review and one of the issues the law review panel is considering is whether the law on dress codes needs to be changed.

“An awareness raising campaign is welcome but the bottom line is that employers are still getting away with objectifying women at work.

“That has to change.”

  1. What a huge disappointment, coming from a government headed by a woman.

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