Sexist - and illegal - dress codes rife in UK workplaces

  • 26/01/2017
High heels on a businesswoman (Getty)
Under Britain's equality law, company dress codes must make equivalent requirements for women and men (Getty)

You must wear shoes with heels 5-10 cm high at all times when you are at work. You must wear make-up and regularly re-apply it. You must wear tights, but not opaque ones.

Those were some of the rules in a dress code imposed by a British recruitment agency on its female workers before one of them, Nicola Thorp, refused to wear high heels one morning and was sent home without pay.

After Ms Thorp, 27, started a petition against compulsory high heels on parliament's website that garnered 152,420 signatures, her rebellion became a national talking-point and led to an inquiry by lawmakers into workplace dress codes in Britain.

They reported on Wednesday that sexist dress codes were rife in some industries and women were routinely being forced to wear high heels in jobs where they were on their feet all day and their shoes were causing them pain and health problems.

"This may have started over a pair of high heels, but what it has revealed about discrimination in the UK workplace is vital," said Ms Thorp, commenting on the report.

"The government has said that the way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay," said petitions committee chair, Helen Jones MP.

"It's clear from the stories we've heard from members of the public that Nicola's story is far from unique."

Law widely ignored

Under Britain's equality law, company dress codes must make equivalent requirements for women and men, but the lawmakers said breaches of the law were widespread in sectors including hotels, travel, temporary work agencies, hospitality and retail.

The report said women facing discriminatory dress codes tended to be young and in low-paid jobs with precarious contracts, making it difficult for them to challenge company practices.

"I came in one morning and my manager was cracking down on uniform and informed me that I had to look 'sexy', which entailed wearing heels," wrote one retail worker, who gave her name as Jasmine.

Jasmine complied, but her job involved standing and walking all day and she found high heels extremely painful.

"When I asked my manager if it would be OK if I changed to flats she replied saying 'what girl can't wear heels?' and continued to tell me I was being pathetic," she wrote.

"With employment tribunals costing up to £1,200, even if you're on the minimum wage, many women can’t afford to challenge sexist policies," said Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O'Grady.

"If ministers are serious about enforcing equality legislation then they should scrap tribunal fees immediately."

Prime Minister Theresa May in 2011, when she was Women's Minister, said "traditional gender-based workplace dress codes… encourage a sense of professionalism in the workplace".

The report has called on the government to take urgent action including raising financial penalties against employers found to be in breach of the law, and promotion of awareness campaigns targeted at companies, workers and students.

Reuters / Newshub.