A controversy in the workplace emerged recently as a London office temp was sent home from work when she refused to wear high heels in an office. Nicola Thorpe, 27, was informed by her bosses at Central London finance business, PwC, that she is expected to wear shoes with a heel measuring 2 to 4 inches. She attended work that day wearing flat shoes and declined to wear heels on grounds that her male colleagues are not expected to do the same.
Ms Thorpe complained that heels would cause her discomfort when working a full day’s shift and asked whether the flat shoes she is accustomed to wearing in UK offices could be an alternative option, but she was sent home without pay and told she would have to come back with high heels before being suitable for work. In an interview with BBC Radio, she explained: ‘if you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job today, then fair enough’, but they couldn’t […] I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I said ‘I just won’t be able to do that in heels”.
When Ms Thorpe took to Facebook to voice her concern, she quickly discovered that many other women had experienced similar treatment in the workplace; treatment that could be classed as a form of discrimination. Such an occasion often goes unreported as many women are not comfortable voicing their concern to their peers in what is often a male dominated environment and as a result suffer in silence.
Ms Thorpe believes her experience has sexist connotations: “Aside from the debilitating factor, it’s the sexism issue. I think companies shouldn’t be forcing that on their female employees.” This belief is supported by Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, who says the situation at PwC “reeks of sexism” and said in a statement that “high heels should be a choice, not a requirement”.
Ms Thorpe has created an online petition to abolish the mandatory high heel dress code for women for which she has received upwards of 10,000 signatures thus far. Detailing her experience, she revealed: “I was a bit scared about speaking up about it in case there was a negative backlash, but I realised I needed to put a voice to this as it is a much bigger issue.”
Simon Pratt is the managing director of Portico, the firm that runs PwC. He has provided an explanation for the dress policy in place at PwC, claiming it is standard practice within the service sector to maintain guidelines for employee appearance in order to “positively represent a client’s brand and image”. Mr Pratt also detailed how Ms Thorp had signed the appearance guidelines when she originally began employment with PwC and did not object to the agreed code. Although, it now seems Portico are at least acknowledging that Ms Thorpe has raised some relevant issues as the company is now reconsidering its footwear rules and reviewing existing guidelines.
This situation has provoked much interest in the world of employment law, as it raises questions regarding the legality of whether employees, male or female, should be expected to follow such rigid dress codes at the expense of their personal comfort.
Current UK law allows for employers to dismiss any employee who does not abide by a “reasonable” dress code, on condition that each employee is given a fair amount of time to make arrangements for doing so. Employers also have the legal right to judge what they deem appropriate attire independently of any fixed criteria. Although, UK law states that an “equivalent level of smartness” must be ensured for equality between men and women.
Another important question that Ms Thorpe’s situation has provoked is whether a woman has the right to sue her employer if she feels an employment dress code has discriminated against her. A successful case will be much easier to win if it can be proven that the employer expects women to dress a certain way in a bid to evoke a notion of femininity, rather than creating an intended brand image for the business. Although this too could prove difficult depending on the nature of the business.
It is worth noting though that a legal case against an employer could be possible on health related grounds, as the daily wear of high heels can lead to foot injuries, and the long term affects may result in serious consequences like arthritis and nerve damage.
Emma Supple is a podiatrist at the College of Podiatry, and has been a vocal supporter for abolishing mandatory heels for women in the workplace due to the potential health detriment is causes . In 2009, she voiced her concerns at the House of Commons and noted that her speech “really opened some eyes to the issue”. Her efforts subsequently led to a 2009 TUC motion that women should not be forced to wear heels at work. However, this is yet to prevent businesses from instructing employees to do so if it constitutes supporting a brand image.
The assertion that an employee’s health and comfort takes precedence over expectations of image is certainly reflected by Ms Thorpe’s experience. She feels existing expectations of office dress codes for women need re-evaluating: “I don’t hold anything against the company necessarily because they are acting within their rights as employers to have a formal dress code, [but] women can be smart and formal and wear flat shoes”.