There has been much media coverage over the last week of
'heelgate'. The incident involved Nicola Thorp, a
receptionist working at PwC through an agency, Portico, who
reported for work in flats and was told to either go and buy a
pair of heels or go home.
Most employers have dress codes but is it reasonable to go to
this far? In my view (which is only partly motivated by a complete
aversion to heels), no. Of course employers are entitled to set
dress codes for their employees and staff, and of course it is
reasonable to ask staff to look professional. However, the rules in
this case required female staff to wear heels over a full working
shift, which, as anyone who has done it will know, is not
comfortable. There does not appear to have been an equivalent
policy for men.
Portico is not alone in placing strict dress code policies on
its staff. I have heard of companies who require female staff
to wear specific make up and present their hair in certain styles.
The disadvantages to female staff are not just discomfort or
inconvenience: over a year, a woman required to wear specific make
up would incur far more expense than a male colleague who was just
required to dress smartly.
Whilst, ironically, I imagine that this publicity has not done
wonders for Portico's image, there are also employment law
implications. The Equality Act prevents employers treating their
staff less favourably because of their gender. The kinds of dress
codes that I identify above do just that. If an employer's
specifications as to how their staff should appear smart and
professionally turned out create disadvantages (whether financial
or otherwise) for a particular gender, there is an argument that
they constitute less favourable treatment and are therefore
Correcting the paper policy is relatively easy to fix but paper
policy or not, there will be a dress code double standard in a lot
of companies. Many employers may even subconsciously form negative
perceptions of female employees because they do not conform to
standards of dress that their male counterparts are not required to
adhere to, particularly in more conservative professions. That
is the real challenge for employers who want to create a fair dress
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