Discriminatory Dress Codes Are Persistent – But Not Unbeatable

Illustrated by Annu Kilpeläinen.
It is, sadly, a fact of life that you have to look presentable at work and that strolling into the office still wrapped in your duvet is generally frowned upon. But when you are forced to wear makeup or high heels simply because your manager tells you to, things start to become uncomfortable.

That is the situation Londoner Nicola Thorp found herself in just over a year ago, when she was told on her first day working as a receptionist at finance company PwC that she had to wear shoes with a "two- to four-inch heel".

When she refused and complained that male colleagues were not asked to do the same, she was sent home without pay. It clearly touched a nerve, leading over 152,000 Brits to sign a petition calling for a ban on employers forcing women to wear heels. And last week, the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee released a report looking into high heels and workplace dress codes.

The report’s findings are clear: existing laws need to be toughened to overcome sexist workplace codes. But it's a conclusion that probably won't come as a surprise to many women who have worked in sectors like retail, tourism or hospitality – myself included.

As a fresh-faced but insecure 19-year-old, desperate for a retail job to pay my way through university, I too had to battle with a strict dress code.

Soon after I started my job, my manager made it clear what was expected of me. Wearing heels for the duration of a nine-hour shift on the shop floor was a given. From February onwards, tights were a no-no – even in the freezing cold. For any shift, I had to look like I was "ready for a night out", which would include fake tan, foundation, blusher and eyeshadow as a bare minimum.

For someone who hardly knew how to apply mascara without poking herself in the eye, these rules came as a bit of a shock. Eager not to upset my manager, I tried to adapt to the company culture.

A couple of months in, I was standing at the front door greeting customers when my manager came over for a quick chat. She told me that she wanted every girl who walked past to look over and aspire to be me – which was not the vibe she was getting, despite my best efforts to fit in. Her rules suddenly seemed distinctly unfair, and personal.

Wearing heels for nine hours also started to take its toll, and I often stared enviously at my male colleagues who would pace up and down the shop in their comfortable smart shoes. One shift, I plucked up the courage to ask if I could swap into my flats. It was met with a stony, “You could always work for Primark if you’d like” – which in hindsight I probably should have done. I decided to stick it out for another year, but ditched the fake tan as a silent protest.

Risking your health

The government report says there is “no doubt” dress codes that require women to wear high heels for extended periods of time are damaging to their health both in the short and long term. It can lead to persistent pain and has even been linked to knee, hip and spine problems.

Restrictive dress codes can also harm women’s mental wellbeing. Anecdotal evidence in the report shows certain dress code requirements – for example, having to wear makeup, high heels and skirts above the knee – make some women feel incredibly uncomfortable and even sexualised by their employer. They can also feel discriminated against and shy away from progressing within their company. In the most extreme cases, it can expose women to unwanted sexual attention from customers, clients or management.

Rachel*, 24, can relate. When she first moved to London three years ago, she accepted a temporary role as a receptionist at a creative agency to tide her over. During her time there, she was told by one senior member of staff to “make herself look prettier for visitors” by wearing more makeup. He would also repeatedly ‘joke’ about how she should wear tight tops to make people “feel welcome”.
Illustrated by Annu Kilpeläinen.
“It was such an uncomfortable situation to be in. I was reliant on this job to pay my bills, and at the same time I felt I should just put up with it and smile along with his jokes so I wasn’t seen as difficult,” she says.

Sadly these feelings aren’t uncommon, says Sam Smethers, chief executive of women’s rights organisation, the Fawcett Society.

“For women on an individual level, it can feel like they’re rocking the boat of the organisation. It tends to be normalised by other workers, where it is expected to dress a certain way. It can also feel like a trivial thing to challenge, and as it’s ingrained in the culture it’s hard to be the one to stand up against it,” she explains.

Lacking awareness


As the report points out, the government’s 2010 Equality Act already covers employees against this type of discrimination. The law says that female staff cannot be treated less favourably than their male counterparts in terms of working conditions. As a result, the dress code with which Nicola Thorp was told to comply was illegal, as it is more onerous for women than for men.

Unfortunately, many people – employers and employees alike – don’t know about this law or refuse to take it seriously, which is why restrictive dress codes remain part and parcel of working life. And while the British government has said it expects employers to make sure they comply with the law, the Committees have argued that this isn’t enough, as breaches within the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors are rife.

“Pushing responsibility onto employers to find out their legal obligations and comply is a strategy which is not working. The Government needs to do more and must do it quickly”, the report urges.

Those that do decide to take their claim to court also face hefty fees and little reward if they do succeed in taking on their employer. Payouts tend to be fairly small, in the region of £250 to £1,000. Meanwhile, the cost of bringing a discrimination claim before an employment tribunal stands at £1,200. This will, understandably, put most women off.

According to the Committees, there are three ways to solve the problem: tweaking the laws where necessary, increasing payouts for those that successfully take their employer to court, and raising awareness among employers, female workers and students.

And while it might seem impossible to challenge your company’s culture, tougher laws and more clarity on how to tackle unfair work environments would be a big help.

As Smethers concludes: “Not enough people know their rights. To win over the public’s hearts and minds and drastically change people’s attitudes towards their work culture, we really have to drive this message home.”

*Not her real name
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