It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am pleased to speak in this debate in support of women across the UK who have been subject to various kinds of discrimination with regard to workplace dress codes. I call on the Government to tighten the rules so that that is no longer prevalent in the workplace.
The debate is happening because of a petition signed by more than 150,000 people in the United Kingdom. That shows the real and serious concern that many people have about the fact that, in 2017, women are still subject to unreasonable footwear requirements at work. In the same week as International Women’s Day, when we are celebrating the success of women across the world, who during the past century have made huge strides in the attempt to secure economic, political and social parity, we must also pay great attention to the fact that there is still some way to go.
As recent studies have shown, women still lag behind men in pay. The median hourly rate of pay is £12.82 for female full-time employees, compared with £14.16 for males. However, as this debate highlights, parity in the workplace does not mean only economic parity. The petition rightly points out that, despite the introduction of equality laws, women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. That manifests itself in various ways, including through requirements to wear high heels in the workplace. I assure the House that in workplaces across the country, women are often instructed to wear a full face of make-up and even told which shade of red to wear on their lips.
In evidence provided to the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee for their joint report, women admitted that they found the dress codes that require them to wear high heels “humiliating and degrading”. Some felt “sexualised” by their employer’s insistence on high heels. That effect on the psychological wellbeing of female workers is deeply worrying.
The evidence is clear. There is no real practical function to the wearing of high heels, and I challenge anyone in the House to provide evidence that wearing high heels in the workplace should be mandatory and forced on women employees. Evidence from the College of Podiatry reveals that there is a strong body of clinical evidence against wearing high heels for prolonged periods. However, in some professions, standing in high heels for the duration of an eight-hour shift is the norm. Wearing heels in that way often causes foot pain, bunions, skin lesions, lower limb pathologies and other related discomfort. In fact, my own daughter suffered a metatarsal fracture, which is more commonly associated with sports injuries, when she was forced to wear high heels in a former retail job. As she had not been on the payroll long enough, she was denied any compensation or sick pay— literally adding insult to injury. Needless to say, she did not return to that type of work, but not everyone has that choice.
In my view, all the evidence that we have heard disqualifies any practical argument for forcing women to wear high heels in the workplace. Dress codes in all workplaces should serve a practical purpose and be neutral, targeting men and women in the same way. That is compatible with what the law states. The Equality Act 2010 is clear in principle, in that it aims to harmonise discrimination law and strengthen the law to promote equality in the UK. Sections 39 and 41 prohibit direct discrimination. As the Government put it to the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee:
“They…specifically state that employers must not discriminate as to the terms of employment, or indeed by subjecting an employee to any detriment at work.”
We are debating this topic today because the law is not working in practice and is particularly disadvantageous to women in the workforce, who often feel vulnerable in calling out these injustices. To be effective, the law must be understood by both employers and employees, and employers must take complaints of such discrimination seriously. If they do not, appropriate punishment should be set out clearly.
Today’s job market is fragile, with record numbers of people on zero-hours contracts. Often, those contracts are found in the retail and hospitality sectors, and there have been many cases of women in particular being sent home because they have not complied with a certain aspect of a dress code such as wearing high heels or putting on the “right” shade of lipstick.
I support the calls for the Government to take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act 2010, as well as to provide clearer guidelines on these issues so that the laws already in existence are properly functional and effective.