Work dress codes, high heels, and patent sexism
There are so many problems with the story of Nicola Thorp, the London receptionist who was sent home by her agency, Portico, without pay because she refused to wear high heels, it’s hard to know where to begin.
From a health and safety perspective, heels are bad for feet, joints and back. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but it’s true. I say this as someone with messed up feet as a result of years of tottering around in pretty but impractical high heels. I learned the hard way. Now I generally wear the kind of shoes that would get me sent home without pay if I was unlucky enough to temp for Portico. But you don’t want to read about my feet. Just look at the bleeding feet of a Canadian woman forced to wear heels for her job – or don’t if you’re squeamish.
Back in 2009, the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists – people who know a thing or two about shoes – put a motion to TUC Congress pointing out that,
“Wearing high heels can cause long term foot problems, such as blisters, corns and callus, to serious foot, knee and back pain, and damaged joints.”
And calling on
“all employers who have dress codes that promote high heels to examine the hazards their women workers face and ensure that proper risk assessments are carried out, and that where these show the wearing of high heels is hazardous they should be replaced with sensible and comfortable shoes”.
As I recall, the TUC was pilloried in the right wing press for being a bunch of rabid, lefty, feminists who just want to contravene women’s human right to wear stilettos (or something), when in fact we were just asking for employers to stop forcing women like Nicola Thorp into painful shoes.
Even for women who don’t find wearing heels painful and don’t give a fig about the bunion and corn filled future they have in store, they may simply prefer not to wear heels.
“My agency said they will only send me to sites that accept women in flat shoes and will tell them I have a back injury but I rejected this. I shouldn’t have to pretend to have a back injury because I’m a female. When men don’t need an excuse to wear flat shoes.” Nicola Thorp
Quite apart from being bad for your feet, high heels are also impractical and unsafe in lots of work environments. Uniforms including heels are not uncommon for female air cabin crew. The only thing I remember from those safety demonstrations on planes – apart from the bit about putting your own oxygen mask on before attending to your child – is that high heels should be removed when exiting via the big inflatable slide. Surely cabin crew flinging off their high heeled shoes and trying to evacuate a whole plan while barefoot is not ideal from a health and safety perspective?
There are plenty of good reasons why an employer might specify particular types of shoes as part of a uniform or dress code. Steel capped shoes are a really good idea when working on a construction site. Non-slip shoes are a sensible uniform requirement in a hospital. But in jobs where there is no health and safety rationale for prescribing particular types of footwear, what business is it of employers what employees wear on their feet?
As someone who was once sent home from work (not the TUC, I hasten to add) for not having ironed my shirt and generally looking a bit dishevelled, I’m loath to admit it, but it is true that employers are well within their rights to impose a dress code. Your boss can legally stipulate different items of clothing for men and women. They also have the right to require staff to adhere to a smart dress code which could include formal shoes. I guess it’s fair enough that an employer trying to project a staid, corporate image wouldn’t want client-facing staff to wear flip flops, bashed up old trainers, or a crumpled up shirt that had never encountered an iron. But why stipulate heels? Heels are not inherently smarter than flat shoes. Brogues, loafers, and flat pumps can all be just as smart as a pair of heeled court shoes.
Employers like Portico can pretend all they like that high heeled shoes equal “smart” shoes but they’re just being coy. “Smart” appears to be code for “sexy” in this instance. A dress code that requires women to look sexy, regardless of the pain or discomfort it might cause them, has no place in the modern workplace.
What Nicola Thorp has rightly challenged is the huge leeway that is given to employers in imposing sexist dress codes. Frances O’Grady is quoted in the press saying that Thorp’s case “reeks of sexism” and she’s right. The TUC even has an excellent guide on footwear at work which states unequivocally that dress codes which require women to wear heels are sexist – it’s not often you find a health and safety guide for reps calling out sexism.
Not only are women routinely told they must wear painful heels but many employers also tell women how to wear their hair and nails, how much make up to wear, what type of make up to wear, that they must wear tights even in the summer, and that they must wear skirts rather than trousers. Men are subject to ludicrous dress codes too – ties and jackets are required by many employers with “smart” dress codes – but none that force them to wear shoes that may cause physical pain and long term damage.
“This is an issue of gender. I’ve looked into it and legally, the only way I can defend my right to wear flat shoes at work is if I want to identify with my employer as a male.” Nicola Thorp
At a time when gender is a hot topic and we’re told that gender boundaries are being broken down, stories like this make you realise that actually we’ve still got a long way to go. Gender norms are as pervasive and rigid as ever, if not more so, and women still have to play by the rules and “perform” femininity in order to get along.