Lovewell’s logic: Are high heels a step too far?

Debbie Lovewell-Tuck

How far should employers be able to go in dictating what employees wear at work? I don’t mean in terms of uniforms, there are very valid reasons for these to exist in numerous organisations, but rather in terms of dictating precise stipulations around elements of employees’ personal clothing where they do not have to wear a uniform.

Earlier this week, a joint report by the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee concluded that women who face demands from their employer to wear high heels, make up or revealing outfits at work require a new legal framework to be introduced to protect them against such discrimination.

The report was published in response to a petition calling on the government to make it illegal for women to wear high heels at work. This was driven by an incident that occurred in December 2015 when Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist employed by agency Portico, arrived at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PWC’s) Embankment office to be told that the smart flat shoes she was wearing did not comply with Portico’s dress code. This required women to wear shoes with a heel height of between two and four inches. When Thorp refused to buy a new pair of shoes she was sent home without pay.

Obviously employers are completely within their rights to specify that employees must dress a certain way or to a certain standard. But where should the boundaries be drawn? While specifying that staff must wear smart shoes is acceptable, surely dictating that female employees must wear heels is not? After all, there may be a number of practical or health-related reasons why an individual may choose not to do so.

One consideration employers will also certainly have to take into account is whether dress codes can be seen to apply equally to both male and female staff in order to avoid potential gender discrimination claims.

Whether this ultimately leads to change remains to be seen, but the fact it is currently generating debate and awareness of the issue can only be a positive step.

Debbie Lovewell-Tuck