Workplace Dress Codes (High Heels) — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 6th March 2017.

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Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Chair, Petitions Committee 4:30 pm, 6th March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 129823 relating to high heels and workplace dress codes.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I also wish to discuss the joint report by the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee on the same subject.

Hon. Members here will remember how the petition came about. Nicola Thorp, who created the petition, worked for an agency called Portico. In December 2015, she was sent for a job as a temporary receptionist at the headquarters of PricewaterhouseCoopers in London. When she arrived, she was told that the smart black shoes she was wearing were unacceptable because they were flat; at the time, Portico’s dress code specified a heel height of between two and four inches—for women, not men. She was offered the opportunity to go out and buy a pair of high heels. When she refused, she was sent home without pay.

Two things immediately struck me about that story. First, there was never a suggestion that Ms Thorp was not smartly dressed; anyone who knows her knows that she is impeccably turned out at all times. Secondly, it was clear that wearing high heels was a requirement that impacted far more on women than on men. In fact, most of Portico’s dress code at the time—to its credit, it has since changed this—was about how women should look. Not only were women to wear high heels, but they were compelled to wear make-up. It was specified that they should wear a minimum of foundation, powder, light blusher—I am not sure whether “light” referred to its colour or its application—mascara, eye shadow and lipstick or tinted lip gloss: not just any old lip gloss, but tinted lip gloss. Make-up was to be regularly reapplied throughout the day, and women were excused from wearing it only if they had a medical condition.

Women also had to wear what were described as skin-coloured tights, but the sort of skin-coloured tights that I would wear—taupe, natural tan and so on—are not at all suitable for women of colour. In fact, at one time, a black woman who turned up in black tights was told she should change them for a flesh-coloured pair, which were, of course, not the colour of her flesh at all. Portico even specified the acceptable shades of nail varnish; there was a colour chart.

The Petitions Committee decided to investigate these issues, and asked the Women and Equalities Committee to join us; I am very grateful to members of that Committee for their help and support on this. We took evidence from employees and Portico, the TUC and the Institute of Recruiters; the Confederation of British Industry declined to give evidence—an attitude it might want to rethink in future when dealing with my Committee. We also heard from barristers who specialise in employment law, and most importantly from women themselves; we set up a web forum on which they could tell us their experiences.

It is fair to say that what we found shocked us. I was going to say that we found attitudes that belonged more in the 1950s than in the 21st century, but the 1850s is probably more accurate. We found that women—especially young women in vulnerable employment—were exploited at work and threatened with dismissal if they complained. They were forced to bear pain all day, wear totally unsuitable clothing for the tasks they were asked to perform, or dress in a way that they felt sexualised their appearance and was demeaning but which they had to put up with if they needed a job. For that reason, I am very grateful to the women who came forward to give evidence to us in public, because that took a great deal of courage—courage that I would probably not have had at their age.

Let me deal with high heels first. There are people who think that we should not have investigated this at all—in fact, they think it is a bit of a joke. Yes, it is true that women sometimes wear high heels, but there is plenty of evidence about the damage from wearing heels long term; that is well known and has been for some time. We received written evidence from the College of Podiatry and individual podiatrists on our web forum setting out just what that damage is. Wearing high heels long term alters balance, reduces flexion in the ankle and weakens calf muscles. Over time, that can make women much more prone to a number of problems, including stress fractures, Morton’s neuroma, ankle sprains and bunions, and it causes a reduction in balance that lasts into old age, putting people more at risk of falls.

Most importantly, we heard from women who told us that they were forced to wear high heels even during pregnancy; that their feet hurt so much at the end of the day that they could not walk; and that their feet bled while they were working. When they tried to raise those issues, they were dismissed. Nicola Thorp told us that:

“Girls would be in tears because their feet were bleeding…and you’d just get laughed at”.

That is not a joke for any woman—it is particularly not a joke for older women who may not be able to wear heels or for women with disabilities. In fact, many women gave evidence that they were put off applying for certain kinds of jobs because of the dress codes. That evidence was confirmed by the director general of the Institute of Recruiters, who told us that such dress codes “definitely” reduced the pool of women applying for jobs. We also heard how unsuitable being made to wear heels was for the tasks that those women were expected to perform at work, such as moving furniture, walking long distances—we heard from people who had been in cabin crew and had to walk long distances in airports—standing all day and even climbing ladders. It was not funny.

We discovered that few employers carried out a health and safety assessment on this issue. Portico told us that it had not done so, and it is not alone. We heard evidence from both the TUC and the Institute of Recruiters that there is very little information available to employers about this kind of footwear problem; there is plenty of information online and on the ACAS website about when people should wear steel-toe-capped boots and so on, but there is not very much on the health and wellbeing issues surrounding footwear.

Dress codes that impact more on women go much further than making them wear high heels. We heard from women who could not even travel to work without wearing full make-up or else they would be disciplined. We heard from cabin crew who were all forced to wear the same shade of lipstick. We heard from women who were told near Christmas to unbutton their blouses a bit when selling to male customers. We even heard of a women being told to dye her hair blonde.

The problem with these issues is not just that they are discriminatory and impact more on women; it is that they both stem from and feed into an attitude to women in the workplace that is totally reprehensible and concentrates on a stereotypical appearance, rather than on skills that women can bring to the job. Our witnesses told us how demeaning they found that.

One woman who had worked as a cabin crew member told us that she thought her appearance was sexualised for the sake of the business, which was both dehumanising and humiliating, given that male cabin crew were simply expected to look smart; those of us who fly regularly will know exactly what she meant by that. Another woman who worked in retail was told near Christmas to unbutton her blouse a bit and wear shorter skirts to sell to male customers, which she felt devalued her skills as a saleswoman and her knowledge of the products.

It gets worse. Frequently, these issues go hand in hand with a work environment in which women are harassed and younger women in particular have to put up with daily comments about their bodies from managers and are exposed to unwanted attention from customers. We heard, for instance, of women being asked when they were finishing work; of women receiving unwanted attention online, amounting to harassment; of people trying to find out where women lived or, if they were abroad, what hotel they were staying in; and even of women being followed home from work by customers. All that is unacceptable in the 21st century. It degrades women.

The Government think that the law is fairly clear on this. In their answer to the petition, they were clear that the requirement to wear high heels, as experienced by Nicola Thorp, is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. We received some legal evidence that suggested the law is not quite so clear. The legal opinions we heard suggested that a conventional dress code, for want of a better term, might not constitute direct discrimination under the Equality Act, because men and women tend to dress differently. However, if that dress code impacted more on one sex than another, it was likely to be indirect discrimination. The problem is that indirect discrimination can be justified if it is reasonably necessary in pursuit of a legitimate end, but there is not a proper definition of “legitimate end”.

More importantly, not only can tribunals decide cases differently in different parts of the country, but very few cases are getting to tribunal at all. We heard that there is very little case law or advice for employers. When I asked the managing director of Portico, during our evidence session, whether it had occurred to him that his company’s dress code might be discriminatory, he said that it had not at all. That is one reason why we suggest that the Government need to provide much more information to employers about not only the health and safety aspects of their dress code but what may constitute discrimination. That is particularly true for smaller employers that do not have in-house solicitors and HR departments.