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I’ve mentioned before my contempt of foolish social dress codes that hamper women’s working lives. On that occasion I was talking about women choosing to wear high heels to work, but during the past few months a more unjust scenario has gained prominence: employers who insist that their female staff wear them, and often full warpaint as well.

Receptionist Nicola Thorp recently turned up to work in flat shoes and was sent home without pay as a result, despite explaining that she would find it impossible to do her job (escorting clients to and from meetings for nine hours) on painful, wobbly stilts.

Her employer, Portico, tried to brazen it out by saying that the requirement for heels was written into the appearance code that she had signed.

We will pause here briefly to wonder whether Portico (which has now changed its policy) also required male employees to sport footwear that wrecks their musculoskeletal structure, causes pain and in the long term often necessitates surgery; and then we will laugh, because how unlikely is that?

Ms Thorp, to her immense credit, refused to be cowed and — in classic early 21st century style — started a petition on the UK parliament website asking the government to “make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work”. It has received nearly 150,000 signatures and parliament’s petitions committee is now collecting evidence on the issue with an eye to looking into it more thoroughly.

Mumsnet users, when asked by the committee for their views, weighed in decisively. While some drew comparisons between women having to wear heels and men having to wear ties, most pointed out that it is really not the same thing in terms of long-term physical effects and pain (although the wearing of ties is also, in my view, fairly superfluous). One commenter disclosed that while working as cabin crew — one of the last redoubts of insanely sexist uniform codes — she’d been “disciplined for not wearing enough lipstick”. Female cabin crew are frequently only allowed to wear more sensible shoes after the aircraft is airborne, but of course many must force their feet into cripplingly uncomfortable shoes for the all-important parade through departures; how else can the trainer-shod passengers fully admire their figures?

There is some disagreement about whether this nonsense breaks employment law, apparently hinging upon whether or not the requirement to wear heels is born of a desire to make staff look “sexy”. This leaves women to face being given the sack — with all the implications for their households and self-esteem — and pay to take their employers to a long-winded tribunal to find the answer.

Alternatively, those few employers who still insist on women hobbling could simply behave decently and remove all discriminatory uniform codes forthwith.

Justine Roberts is co-founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, a networking site

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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