Ladies, don’t break out those comfortable shoes just yet.
The UK government on Friday said it believed current law is “adequate” to deal with discriminatory workplace dress codes, after a petition brought by a woman who said she was sent home on her first day at a new job for refusing to wear high heels.
The petition from Nicola Thorp last year, which attracted more than 152,000 signatures, argued that dress-code law should be changed so women can wear flat shoes at work. Ms Thorp said she was sent home from PwC due to a requirement by Portico, the staffing agency that supplies workers to PwC, that “female employees wear heels between two and four inches high.”
A subsequent parliamentary report issued in January in response to Ms Thorp’s petition said that forcing women to wear high heels remains a “widespread” practice. It said that while it is illegal to demand that women wear high heels, the fact such measures were still common demonstrated that the current law, the Equality Act 2010, was not fully effective.
The report called for a review and possible amendment to that law, as well as tougher penalties for employers who breach it.
The government’s formal response, however, rejected the call for a legislative amendment, saying instead that it would issue new employer guidelines for workplace dress codes by the summer:
“We are clear that the law to deal with this sort of discrimination is adequate, but we recognise that some employers lack awareness of the law or even choose to flout it, taking advantage of reluctance by employees to take action when they feel discrimination has occurred. We therefore welcome this opportunity to develop new guidance for employers.”
Ms Thorp said on Twitter that the response demonstrated the need for political change. “If current government isn’t brave enough to change this law, let’s vote for one that will,” she tweeted.
Jonathan Chamberlain, a partner practising employment law at Gowling WLG, said:
“No mainstream employer could conceivably require women to wear high heels to work. It’s sexist – full-stop. Some employers try to rely on the idea that their male staff are required to dress to an equivalent level of smartness, but that doesn’t work: high-heels are almost uniquely worn by women What this case shows is not that a change in the law is needed but a change in attitudes, as well as an understanding of what the law actually says.”
The forthcoming guidance on the issue may help clarify the finer details of what employers can, and can’t, get away with in employee dress codes, added Phil Pepper, an employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau:
“Problems occur because expectations about how employees should dress at work can be subjective — one person’s idea of a smart appearance might differ from another’s. Issues can arise if employees feel that the dress code at their workplace is sexist or otherwise discriminatory. It is safe to say, forcing your employees to wear high heels could leave employers open to discrimination claims. There are laws around dress codes. If you are an employer who requires women to wear high heels, there is some protection for women on sex discrimination grounds.”