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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:06 pm on 6th March 2017.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans) 5:06 pm, 6th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am pleased to follow such an interesting and thought-provoking contribution from Liz McInnes. I also commend Nicola Thorp, who brought this issue to all of our attention and wrote the petition. Helen Jones spoke passionately and clarified some of the depressing realities of working life for many of the young women that she and her Committee spoke to. Like her, I commend the young women who came forward to give evidence in public. It can be daunting for someone to put their head above the parapet, and in this case doing so attracted comment that would have made it more so.

I followed the case that led to the petition and subsequent Committee inquiry with some interest. As I said, before I came to this place it was my job to write the dress code policy for my organisation and to work with staff and trade unions to arrive at a sensible and agreeable policy. I can recall us having lots of discussion but, I have to say, little disagreement about how things might be expressed. We heard sensible words about people being attired appropriately for the task at hand, and that is a reasonable summary of the position that I would expect most organisations to reach.

We had precious little discussion about shoes and none whatever about some of the other, quite astonishing requirements being placed on women that we have heard about today, such as women being required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to reapply their make-up constantly—as for flesh-coloured tights, I despair! I would be amused by the fact that I personally would fail on every single one of those counts, were not the overall topic and what it says about women in the workplace and wider society so depressingly serious.

I would have remembered had we had any discussion about high heels because, unlike the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, I am quite partial to a pair of high heels, but not at work—they do not really do in the House of Commons where we have to walk so much. I therefore stand here in the Chamber in a pair of boringly sensible boots. They are smart enough and, thankfully, they add a number of extra inches to my height, but I am sure that they would fall foul of the kind of dress codes that we have heard about, because they are simply too sensible.

Interestingly, the only discussion that I can remember about footwear and dress codes was in relation to safety footwear. That was the only area in which we felt it was at all appropriate for us to be specific. For most staff, “smart” was clarity enough, but for those who were likely to be working in environments in which things could be dropped or cause injury, the unbreakable rule was that appropriate safety footwear must be worn. That seems eminently sensible to me and seems to be in line with the century in which we are having this discussion.

I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which I thought would have a view worth considering on this issue, and it did. It says that dress codes are lawful, provided that they are reasonable and have equivalent requirements for both sexes. It suggests key points that employers should consider when implementing or amending a dress code: they should always avoid any form of discrimination in a dress code policy and remember that imposing certain standards of dress for health and safety reasons is acceptable—I would go further and say that it is vital. They should also apply dress codes equally to men and women. The difficulty, of course, arises there, because men and women do not generally wear similar shoes or clothing, and most men do not wear make-up. However, it is surely possible in this day and age for us to agree, for instance, that both sexes need to look smart without going into areas where women are clearly treated less favourably than men. For instance, the requirement to wear make-up would surely amount to discrimination, as would a requirement for someone to wear revealing clothing or to dye their hair blonde. I can also foresee a strand of age discrimination that would quite likely follow some of those extremely unhelpful gender-related suggestions.

Crucially, the CIPD advised that employers should always make sure that they have a sound business reason for imposing personal appearance criteria on staff and that a clear written policy has been implemented and widely communicated. The CIPD concluded that it is important to avoid the pitfall of believing that clients would automatically take offence at an employee’s personal appearance. I do not know about anyone else in the Chamber today, but the sight of a woman in flat shoes does not usually send me reaching for the smelling salts. I imagine that clients coming to meetings will be spectacularly unbothered by the heel height of anyone in attendance, and rather more focused on the business at hand—unless, of course, their meeting is being held in the 1970s.

Safety is clearly the key point; it is vital that everyone is kept safe at work and that all health and safety requirements are met. Nobody should be expected to work in an environment that damages their health—but that is what happens for someone who works in a company where high heels are required. We have heard only too clearly from the hon. Member for Warrington North about the real health impacts—to say nothing of the pain—that these dress codes can cause and, worryingly, about the fact that women were put off applying for jobs because of those criteria.

I have admitted to owning a number of high-heeled shoes—some of them very high—but that is my choice and there is no compulsion on me to wear them to work. If I did, according to research I would be in trouble, because women over 40—sadly that includes me—are particularly affected, because women’s balance is apparently affected by age. Seriously, there are more potential issues of discrimination on the grounds of age and disability.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report was helpful in clarifying that the relationship between the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and workplace dress codes is not as widely understood as it should be, and that the current approach is not working. We welcome the report and its calls for new legislation and new ways of tackling discrimination, and for stopping women being forced to comply with discriminatory dress codes.

I understand that the UK Government have said that the existing law is clear and that the dress code that prompted this petition is unlawful. However, discriminatory dress codes obviously remain widespread, so the existing law is clearly not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. It is wrong for someone to be expected to wear high heels, make-up or revealing outfits if such demands are not placed on both genders. Clearly, that would be undesirable, but such ingrained workplace sexism sadly continues to prevail.

It is clear from the report that many people do not feel able to challenge the dress codes that they are required to follow. I agree with the recommendations that the Government Equalities Office should work with ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive to make sure that detailed guidance can be published to help people to understand both equality and health and safety law and how they apply to workplace dress codes. There is simply insufficient evidence in the public domain about health and safety and the risks and implications, for instance, of wearing high heels. I look forward to those bodies working on that as soon as possible, because this really does matter.

I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government are taking action to ensure women’s equality in the workplace, because that goes right to the heart of this issue. What we have heard today about women being subjected to ridiculous requirements and—far worse— harassment in the workplace is unacceptable. In 2017, equality for women in the workplace should be at the heart of every Government’s agenda. Closing the gender pay gap, dealing with maternity discrimination and considering how all those issues can feed into economic growth are vital, but those things cannot be dealt with alone. Until we can deal with what we have discussed today, we will not make the progress that we should, because that is key to driving forward gender equality in the workplace. I press the Minister to tell us what she can do, what she will do and when we can expect some action.