It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Helen Jones for the powerful way in which she introduced the debate on behalf not only of the Petitions Committee, but of the more than 150,000 people who signed the petition. I also pay tribute to the incredible lady—Nicola Thorp—who started it.
Nicola’s actions on that day in December 2015, when she was given the choice—I use the word “choice” with the loosest possible meaning—either to return to work with a pair of high heels or to leave work and forfeit a day’s pay, has the potential to change the experiences of women in the workplace. She acted not just for herself, but, as we can see from the subsequent inquiry by the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee, for thousands of women up and down our country.
Given that 150,000 people signed the petition and the more than 700 responses to the inquiry’s web forum, it is clear that Nicola’s experience was not an isolated incident. The inquiry took evidence on the medical effects of the prolonged wearing of high heels, which the College of Podiatry describes as “disabling”. As we heard from a number of hon. Members this afternoon, that includes severe pain, knee, hip and spine problems and stress fractures. It places older women or perhaps those with disabilities—already marginalised groups—at a particular disadvantage and impacts on women’s performance at work.
As reported by many of the respondents to the inquiry, women often find such dress codes humiliating, degrading and demeaning, designed not to guarantee a professional image of the employer but to sexualise women employees. Evidence in the Committee’s report highlights just that, with one respondent saying:
“For me personally, it was a bit dehumanising and humiliating to be made specifically to wear items of uniform that sexualised my appearance or enhanced my sexuality—no aspect of the men’s uniform was designed to enhance their male sexuality.”
Such dress codes are based on the objectification and sexualisation of female employees. They hinge on the requirement for someone else in the workplace to appraise the physical appearance of those staff members. Gender-based dress codes create working environments where women are vulnerable to sexual harassment, not only from their employer, but from customers and clients. Furthermore, any such level of objectification, clearly based on a particular understanding of beauty and gender stereotypes, may have negative implications for women who do not conform to them. As the inquiry heard, there may be homophobic or racist connotations for women employees. In common with Kirsten Oswald but unlike my hon. Friend Liz McInnes, I own a plethora of high-heeled shoes—perhaps more than some would consider necessary—but I choose when I want to wear them, and that is becoming increasingly rare these days, as my age increases.
These stereotypes do not just impact on women currently in employment; they are pernicious, feeding down to the standards that young girls and women believe are expected of them. According to Girlguiding’s “Girls’ Attitudes Survey”, 36% of girls aged seven to 10 say that people make them think that the most important thing about them is how they look, while 47% of girls aged 11 to 21 say that how they look holds them back most of the time. Tellingly, 86% of seven to 10-year-old girls think that girls and boys have the same chance of being successful in their future jobs, but that falls to just 35% when asking 17 to 21-year-olds. Gender-based dress codes are a cause and a consequence of a nasty and corrosive sexism that conveys that women are little more than dolls to be dressed or objects to be presented. The codes feed portrayals of women that make girls believe that their most valuable asset is not what they say or do, or how hard they work or apply themselves, but how they look. I am rarely lost for words, as I am sure many of my hon. Friends here would agree, but having heard about the mandatory makeup requirements in some workplaces, I am at a loss. We cannot overestimate the implications for young girls’ physical and mental health, self-worth and aspirations.
The inquiry made a number of recommendations. In particular, the Select Committee on Women and Equalities and the Petitions Committee focused on women’s ability to challenge such dress codes and made recommendations on the role of tribunals. Unsurprisingly, the sectors recognised as having the most discriminatory dress codes are travel and tourism services and the retail and hospitality industry, which are known for low-paid and insecure working environments in which women are significantly over-represented. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, many women are deterred from applying for certain jobs by such dress codes.
Those deep and corrosive structural barriers are at the core of women’s economic inequality and allow some companies, as evidenced in the Committee’s report, to treat women poorly in the knowledge that they do not have access to recourse. How does the Minister plan to tackle sectors that rely on insecure working practices, and how will she better support employees in those sectors to access recourse?
According to the TUC, since the introduction of employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of people taking a claim against their employer has dropped by 9,000 a month, which has direct implications for women. Between January and March 2014, just 1,222 sex discrimination claims were made to an employment tribunal, compared with 6,017 in the same quarter in 2013. That represents a huge fall of 80%. On
As the inquiry shows, sometimes the only way that women can enforce their rights at work is through employment tribunals. How on earth can the Government claim to show any commitment to tackling sexist and discriminatory working practices when they have effectively priced women out of their own employment rights? The situation is compounded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s failure to bring test cases in relation to working practices, which comes as no surprise given that the Government have cut its budget to shreds. How will the Government ensure that the EHRC has the necessary budget and resources that it needs to bring test cases to uphold anti-discrimination laws?
Nicola Thorp’s actions and her subsequent petition are a lesson to us all about the importance of hearing directly about women’s experiences. It may never even occur to many in this place that women in the workplace can and regularly do have a markedly different experience from men. Expectations placed on women in the workplace, whether they are written down in a dress code or hinted by a manager, or stare out of an advertisement board or a newspaper, shape the way that women are treated in the workplace. The consequences of those expectations, the humiliation and even, sometimes, the physical pain can and do change how women interact with their work and the world around them.
Ahead of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, every Member of this House should do our utmost to hear directly from women and understand what they experience. When we do hear from women, it is not enough just to recognise their experiences of sexism and discrimination; we must act to tackle it.