Government rejects ban on companies forcing women to wear high heels

The British Government has rejected a proposed ban on women being forced by employers to wear high heels.

A woman was last year sent home from her London receptionist job for refusing to wear high heels.

The temp firm which recruited Nicola Thorpe hassince changed its dress code rules.

Nicola Thorpe

But a petition before Parliament had led to the Petitions Committee releasing a report looking into the effectiveness of the Equality Act in protecting people against such discrimination.

The report urges “the Government to take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act. It recommends that the Government reviews this area of the law and, if necessary, asks Parliament to amend it.”

It also called 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.”

And also calls on “the Government to introduce guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers, workers and students, to improve understanding of the law and workers’ rights.”

But despite the report, the Government has rejected a change in the law to ban employers from forcing workers to wear gendered items such as high heels.

This is despite a public outcry.

New guidelines on dress codes will be issued in the summer, but this will not make it illegal for women to be forced to wear heels in the workplace, even if they spend a lot of time walking or standing.

The Government said some employers “knowingly flout the law”, but the Equalities Office called on firms to review dress codes to “consider whether they remain relevant and lawful”.

New guidelines will also be introduced to ensure employees know their rights in the workplace.

Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee has said the Government has not gone far enough, and that the legislation as it stands is “not sufficient to achieve equality in practice.”

“This petition, and the committees’ inquiry, have reinforced the need for effective enforcement of legislation and for employers and employees to be aware of their obligations and rights,” she continued.

“We welcome the commitments made by the Government to increasing awareness of those rights, and hope that the next Government will monitor how this changes women’s experiences of the workplace.”

Thorpe, a temp worker from Hackney, East London, arrived late in 2015 to a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But on arriving at the job, which was provided by Portico on behalf of PwC, the 27-year-old said she was told she was required to wear shoes with a “2” to 4″ heel”.

Thorpe refused, asking whether male colleagues were required to wear the same heels, but was laughed at and sent home without being paid.

The firm Portico set the rules, but now says it will review its guidelines.

Thorpe said at the time that she would not be able to wear the heels for a whole day, and asked if she could have permission to wear smart, flat shoes for her day at the Embankment office.

But she was told she would have to buy a pair of heels fitting the dress code following the incident, which took place in December.

“I said ‘if you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job today, then fair enough’, but they couldn’t,” Thorp said in an interview with BBC Radio London.

“I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I said ‘I just won’t be able to do that in heels’.”

Going on, Thorpe said: “I said ‘if you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job today, then fair enough’, but they couldn’t.

“I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I said ‘I just won’t be able to do that in heels’.”

After posting about the incident on Facebook, Thorpe says she discovered other women who had been in the same situation.

“I was a bit scared about speaking up about it in case there was a negative backlash,” she added.

“But I realised I needed to put a voice to this as it is a much bigger issue.”

Thorpe now campaigns on the issue and has started a petition to have the law changed so that women can’t be forced to wear certain footwear.

After the petition passed 10,000 signatures, the Government was forced to respond.

Thorpe added: “I don’t hold anything against the company necessarily because they are acting within their rights as employers to have a formal dress code, and as it stands, part of that for a woman is to wear high heels.”

“I think dress codes should reflect society and nowadays women can be smart and formal and wear flat shoes.

“Aside from the debilitating factor, it’s the sexism issue. I think companies shouldn’t be forcing that on their female employees.”

A Portico spokesman told the BBC: “In line with industry standard practice, we have personal appearance guidelines across many of our corporate locations. These policies ensure staff are dressed consistently and include recommendations for appropriate style of footwear for the role.

“We have taken on board the comments regarding footwear and will be reviewing our guidelines in consultation with our clients and team members.”

PwC told the BBC that it was in talks with Portico over the dress code.

“PwC outsources its front of house and reception services to a third party supplier. We first became aware of this matter on 10 May, some five months after the issue arose,” the spokesman said.

“The dress code referenced in the article is not a PwC policy.”

Nicola Thorpe 2

Employers are able, under UK law, to dismiss workers who do not live up to “reasonable” dress codes, given that the staff members are given ample time to buy shoes and clothing.

It is legal for men and women to be given different dress codes, but there must be an “equivalent level of smartness”.