Discriminatory Dress Codes in the U.K.

Over on the other side of the Atlantic, a storm is brewing over the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. The United Kingdom has a law in place — the Equality Act of 2010 –intended to prevent such treatment. However, that apparently hasn’t stopped U.K. employers from ordering their female employees to wear high heels, dye their hair blonde and dress themselves in revealing outfits. That’s according to a recent report by the British Parliament, undertaken in the wake of a petition signed by more than 150,000 people calling for a law that would ban organizations from requiring women to wear heels at work. The parliamentary investigators received complaints from hundreds of U.K. women who said they were subject to sexist dress codes by their employers.

As reported in yesterday’s New York Times, Nicola Thorp started the petition after she was sent home without pay from her job as a temporary receptionist for refusing to comply with an order that she get herself a pair of shoes with heels that were at least two inches high. Turns out that Portico, the receptionist-services firm that formerly employed Thorp, had quite an extensive employee dress code that covered just about every aspect of a woman’s appearance, including hair (“regularly maintained hair colour — if individual colours hair — with no visible roots”), makeup (“makeup worn at all times and regularly reapplied … “) and footwear (“Heel height normally a minimum of 2 inches and maximum of 4 inches, unless otherwise agreed by the company”). The code even suggested the palette of nail polishes that was acceptable. Portico said it changed its policy after Thorp raised the issue, the Times reports.

Thorp told the Times that part of the reason she started her protest was concern for the health effects of wearing high heels throughout the workday: “The company expected me to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I told them that I just wouldn’t be able to do that in heels.”

Thorp is hardly alone in her concern about the physical effects from being forced to wear high heels all day: “We heard from hundreds of women who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by the wearing of high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply makeup,” the report said. It cited longstanding medical evidence showing that women who wear high heels for long periods of time can suffer physical damage, including stress fractures.

U.K. lawmakers expressed concern that the Equality Act has not been effective in preventing employers from applying sexist dress codes. The report calls for “urgent action” by the government, including increased financial penalties for employers that break the law. However, Thorp said she wasn’t satisfied, telling The Guardian she was “absolutely chuffed to bits” that the report’s recommendations didn’t go further.

“The petition took off and I was very pleased to see the debate over heels grow to one about clothes, and continue moving on to other aspects of how women are treated in a work environment,” she told the paper. “We now need to see the government take these recommendations on board. The law should not just be changed but enforced.”

Under current U.K. law, instructing women to wear high heels at work “isn’t necessarily sex discrimination, ” Julia Wilson, an employment lawyer at Baker McKenzie, told British newspaper The Independent. “If [members of Parliament] want clear rules and fines for companies in relation to dress code practices, that is likely to require a change in the law.”