A builder must wear a hard hat and kitchen staff need to wear hair nets in the name of health and safety. Carers, cabin crew and waitresses usually have to wear a uniform for identification; but for what logical reason should women be required to wear high heels in the workplace?
This is the question that agency receptionist, Nicola Thorp, asked when she told her bosses that she didn’t want to wear high heels on her first day as a corporate receptionist. Expected to do a nine hour shift escorting people to meetings, running up and down stairs, she rightly questioned why she could not do this in flat shoes, like her male colleagues. Post refusing to go and buy a pair of heels she was sent home; and this story hit the media, shining a spotlight on sexist attitudes to female dress at work.
Should Women be Wearing Heels at Work?
The story has caused a flurry of sexist nonsense as to why women should have to wear heels in order to make them look ‘smart’ in an office environment. What rubbish! A pair of smart flat shoes look equally professional, even more so compared to the image of a woman hobbling around, clip clopping and wincing with pain because they have been forced to wear uncomfortable shoes!
So what of the health and safety arguments?
Wearing heels is by all accounts a health and safety risk, not only to women’s poor feet and backs but they could also increase the risk of trips and falls. The College of Podiatry has warned employers not to make women wear high heels at work because they can cause bunions, back problems, ankle sprains and tight calves. In response to this story a photo of a waitress’ bleeding feet has been posted on social media after being expected to work full shifts in heels (she even lost a toenail!).
Shooting themselves in the foot?
The TUC conference hit the headlines a few years ago because delegates raised the issue that many women had to wear high heels as part of a dress code that did not apply to men. The motion highlighted that two million working days are lost every year through lower limb and foot-related problems. So employers could actually be shooting themselves in the foot (excuse the pun) by insisting on a dress code that includes heels for women.
Aside from the reasons above, employers should be aware that by dictating dress codes to women, they could find themselves at the wrong end of a discriminations claim if an employee was treated “less favorably” than a colleague of the opposite sex as a result. Simply, where the dress code could result in some disadvantage to the female employee which other male employees do not face, they may have a case on the grounds of sex discrimination.
The practice of inflicting pain on your employees because of a misconceived notion of what is a smart, ‘sexy’ or professional way for women to present to the public should end and end now. Employers are right to insist that their staff are presentable, neat and professional and appropriately dressed for work, but should not insist that they cram their feet into high heels to conduct their working day or shift.
Next steps to avoid Discrimination?
The HR Dept would advise that you have clear, fair and enforceable policies on dress in the workplace. We can ensure that your workplace actions and expectations are not discriminatory. Get in touch if you would like any additional advice on this or any other HR or employment law issue.