Gender Inequality in workplace dress codes

Dress requirements in the workplace that consist of high heels and target young women in “insecure jobs” who already feel vulnerable in the workplace have been suggested as “damaging their health and wellbeing in both the long and short term”, a report concluded by Parliament earlier this year.

In reality, who knew that wearing high stilettos would be a job requirement of a receptionist at a leading City organisation?

A joint report published in January 2017 by the Women and Equalities and Pension Committees – ‘High heels and workplace dress codes’ – notes evidence that employees across the UK are being asked to wear stilettos, dye their hair and apply more make- up from their employers.

Footwear for women has slowly become something of an equality battlefield. There are many employers who enforce dress and appearance requirements on their employees. Generally, the purpose of this is to reflect the business image and reputation. Having dress codes can be justified under legislation, however, employers must be careful in their approach in the event that their working conditions may result in discrimination. In addition, it is important that employers are aware discrimination is not just on the grounds of sex, it can also come in the form of any of the other protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010, which include – religion, disability and gender reassignment.

In 2016, it was reported that Nicola Thorpe, a 27-year-old female, who was employed by a top City firm in London was asked to go home after refusing to wear high heels to work. This story has been subject to criticism – is this principle legal, fair or healthy?

She reported to the BBC that she was “laughed at” when she told her employers that she did not wish to wear high heels on her first day as a corporate receptionist.

In September 2016, a survey published by Slater and Gordon discovered that 7% of women claimed their employers insisted they wore heeled shoes in the office and when with a client as it made them “more appealing”, 8% were asked to wear more make-up so that they “looked prettier”, Nearly 1/3 of those who participated in the survey admitted they had been asked to change their appearance as it would be “better for business”, 13% declared they made the choice to show more flesh in the office following advice from senior employees to ‘jazz up’ their appearance.

Following Nicola Thorpe’s experience, she set up a petition demanding from the Government that “women should have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work.” The petition stated that current legislation is “outdated and sexist.” Her petition saw 152,420 signatures and as a result of this, was debated in Parliament earlier this year.

In response to the petition, the Government stated that they were “taking action to remove the barriers to equality for women at work, which is why we are tackling gender pay gap, increasing the number of women on boards, increasing support for childcare costs and ensuring employers are aware of their obligations to pregnant women.”

“Employers are entitled to set dress codes for their workforce but the law is clear that these dress codes must be reasonable. That includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law. Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear.”

Going forward, employers should carefully consider their current dress code and is this necessary? Where a dress code is a requirement, you should ensure all employees religion and disability beliefs are taken into account and the code is not sanctioned to suit one sex and not the other.

Should an employee request that you are more flexible with dress codes in the workplace, you should consider both viewpoints – yours and theirs – before refusing them this request. If the business objection can be met whilst allowing this exception, you may find yourself liable for discrimination should you refuse it.

How can we help?

Employment Law Services (ELS) LTD will ensure you are well informed of updates as they come in. In the meantime, employers concerned about any of the issues raised in this article, can take advantage of our Employment Law Services (ELS) free consultation service – call us today to arrange your free consultation – 0800 612 4772.