Dress Code Discrepancy

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MPs have called for the Government to ban sexist ‘dress codes’ imposed on women by some employers in the UK.   

Deana Bates, Solicitor in Employment Law, investigates the landmark case and petition that led to over 150,000 individuals urging the Government to take a tougher stance on discrimination against women at work.

Are your heels high enough?

Wear high heels and short skirts. Dye your hair blonde. Paint your nails specific colours. Choose outfits with plunging necklines. Reapply your makeup throughout the day.

As hard as it might be to believe, these are examples of the types of dress codes operating within professional working environments according to a report published by MPs. The report was initiated by the case of Nicola Thorp in 2016.

Imagine that it’s Monday morning and you’ve just arrived at an employment agency, ready to take on a new working week. But, rather than expressing an interest in your qualifications they’re more interested in knowing why you haven’t worn high heels to work, specifically between 2 – 4 inches high.

Unfortunately, this was one day that Nicola Thorp would never forget.

Refusing to obey the rules of her employment agency, Portico, Nicola argued that wearing high heels would have an adverse effect on her health and that her male colleagues didn’t have to stick to any dress codes.

Sadly, this didn’t have any effect on Portico, which then sent her home from her job for disobeying their rules.

Feeling humiliated, sexualised, and uncomfortable at work

After this case hit the headlines in 2016, Nicola began a petition on the issue of workplace discrimination based on dress codes, which gathered over 150,000 signatures.

MPs then launched an investigation to find out just how far these workplace practices extended. In their report, they found that Nicola’s case was one out of hundreds:

“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 makeup.”

When discussing the issue of high heels, many women said that they felt humiliated and even sexualised for having to wear heels at work. They also said that they affected their ability to do their jobs and aggravated different medical conditions, such as:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Arthritis and osteoarthritis
  • Morton’s neuroma – this is caused by the bones in your feet pressing against nerves
  • Spinal deformities or other back problems
  • Flat, wide, or small feet

After finding that “…existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work”, MPs have urged the Government to “change it” or make it “more effective.”

Some of the other key recommendations made by MPs include launching a campaign to educate employers on the laws surrounding discrimination and their legal obligations, as well as letting employees know how they can make complaints.

MPs are also keen on giving employment tribunals the power to hand out tougher financial penalties to employers who don’t comply with the law.

In evidence submitted to the report, the Fawcett Society – a charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights – said:

“There have been statements from women expressing that being asked to look ‘sexy’ in the workplace leads to the uncomfortable realisation that the business they work for is profiting from their bodies.

This also affects women at the top of public life as we have seen from headlines since Theresa May became prime minister. Having a society where it is normal to judge women in their professional life by their appearance and their shoes is not just ridiculous but demeans women who reach the top of their careers, and limits women’s participation in politics.”

Deana comments:

“Discrimination in any form in the workplace is intolerable and should long be extinct. Companies should be aware that by adopting these types of dress codes and having such expectations of their female employees they are breaking the law.”

“Not only do these dress codes build on pre-existing, negative gender stereotypes, they detract from women’s professional capabilities – which is the biggest shame of all.”

“There is a serious possibility that this type of treatment will have a damaging psychological effect on female workers, knocking their confidence and even ability to move up the career ladder. If a woman at work believes she is being judged on her appearance and not her professional output, this is highly likely to have a negative effect on their confidence to progress within the workplace.”

“The Government needs to play a stronger role in enforcing the current equality laws, to prevent this kind of discriminatory conduct by employers. Without their intervention, this sort of behaviour will never really be stamped out in the workplace.”

“Nobody has the right to discriminate against you. If you have been treated in a similar way or are currently experiencing discriminatory treatment and you want to know what protection the law can offer you, I can walk you through your employment rights and discuss what options you have.”

Written by Deana Bates.

For more information on employment law and the services offered by Simpson Millar, please call:

0808 129 3304

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