Heeling, the Gender Divide

November 4th, 2016

Nicola Thorp, an agency worker who was placed at a City firm, caught Fashionista’s eye earlier this year when she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. Fashionista’s employment law specialists consider the implications of this for employers and the associated risks.

According to The Guardian, on her first shift, Nicola was told by her supervisor that flat shoes were not part of the dress code and that unless she went to buy some heels, she would be sent home without pay –as she refused, she was. On top of this, Nicola was said to have been mocked when she explained that she felt she was being discriminated against as her male colleague who was allowed to wear flat shoes.

After the incident, Nicola set up a petition for Parliament to consider making it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. As the petition reached over 100,000 signatures, Parliament will investigate this petition for debate – although a debate date has yet to be set.

Following this, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference voted unanimously for the law to be changed “to enable people to not be compelled to wear high heels at work” after which the TUC General Secretary said, “We need common sense when it comes to dress codes, not outdated sexist policies. It is ridiculous that so many employers still insist their female staff wear high heels and make-up in 2016″. Since the vote, a delegate has even encouraged Theresa May to opt for flats to set an example of equality.heels

Nicola’s experience also sparked interest from experts at the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists who explained that policies to wear high heels can lead to long-term foot problems. Further, hundreds of people commented on a forum which stemmed from Nicola’s petition, explaining how they were in similar situations. One employee, who was apparently required to wear high heels at work, complained of her feet bleeding so much that she was unable to walk or do any daily tasks when not at work.

Does the law need to change?

Despite the public calls for a change in the law, workers are in fact already legally protected against these types of unreasonable demands under equality legislation.

Many employers operate a dress code in the workplace. For example, employees may be required to wear a uniform to ensure that customers can easily identify them, or a no ‘flip-flop’ policy may be implemented for health and safety reasons. However, an employer must take care to ensure that its dress code does not amount to unlawful discrimination due to sex, which is prohibited by the Equality Act 2010. ACAS, the employee conciliation service provides guidance on drafting dress codes to help minimise this risk.

In light of Nicola’s story, ACAS issued some further guidance for employers, specifically relating to high heels. ACAS advised that any dress code should not be stricter, or lead to a detriment, for one gender over the other (although this does not mean that the applicable dress codes for men and women need to be identical). By forcing female employees to wear high heeled shoes, employers are at risk of claims of discrimination on the grounds of sex. This is primarily because of the health and safety implications of wearing high heels. Since wearing high heels can cause physical pain and even harm, if female employees are forced to wear them, they could suffer a detriment compared to men who can opt to wear flat shoes.

As well as the obvious harm caused to an employee, successful discrimination claims can cause reputational damage to an employer and it may mean that they have to pay money in compensation for any financial losses or injury to feelings. Employers would be well advised to consider carefully any proposed dress code, particularly if it is applied differently across genders, to avoid any adverse consequences.

By: Rob Armstrong
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