The solution to sexist dress codes? Access to justice
Imagine that you’re applying for a mystery job and you’re told that all female applicants must adhere to the following dress code:
Heel height normally a minimum of 2 inches and maximum of 4 inches, unless otherwise agreed by the client company.
Make-up worn at all times and regularly re-applied, with a minimum of:
Lipstick or tinted gloss
Nail varnish only from the colour palette below.
Tights of no more than 15/20 denier to be worn at all times on duty. Black or brown may be worn for darker skin tones and natural/tan for lighter skin tones.
Regularly maintained hair colour with no visible roots.
What would you think you were applying for? A job as a model for a leading cosmetics brand? Perhaps an actress in a hosiery advert? Maybe cabin crew on Donald Trump’s private jet?
You would in fact be applying to work as a receptionist for an agency supplying staff to large banks, law firms, accountancy firms and other big City employers in London.
In the 21st century.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about problems with these kinds of dress codes that seek to turn women workers into demure Barbie dolls who are incapable of getting up to show clients to meeting rooms because their feet are squashed into painful high heels.
Last time I wrote about this, high heels were in the news because one brave woman who had been sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels had started a petition calling on the government to outlaw sexist dress codes. That petition instigated a House of Commons Petitions Committee inquiry into the issue, to which the TUC gave evidence, and today the committee has published its report.
In summary, it concluded that not only are such dress codes bonkers, antediluvian, and deeply sexist (not quite their words but that was the gist) but they are also against the law.
The report took seriously evidence provided by the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists that:
“…on average, women report pain after 1 hour, 6 minutes and 48 seconds of wearing ill-fitting high heels – with a fifth of respondents reporting pain after 10 minutes’ wear”
I was also pleased to see that the Committee had considered the disproportionate effect of a requirement to wear high heels on women who have certain disabilities or pre-existing back or foot conditions and on older women.
Crucially, the committee took on board the evidence provided by women workers that, leaving issues of impracticality or health implications aside for one moment, dress codes involving high heels, tight skirts, and make up, made women feel demeaned and objectified.
One woman who had worked as air cabin crew described how her uniform had made her feel. She said:
“For me personally, it was a bit dehumanising and humiliating to be made specifically to wear items of uniform that sexualised my appearance or enhanced my sexuality – no aspect of the men’s uniform was designed to enhance their male sexuality. They looked very smart – they all looked immaculate – but none of them was enhancing their sexuality to somehow improve the image of the airline or the service we were providing.”
The same woman when she gave evidence to the committee recalled how these dress codes often veered into racism as well as sexism as black women were chided by bosses for not having smooth enough hair and were told to get it relaxed or straightened.
Another woman who worked in retail gave evidence and described how her employer had encouraged her and her colleagues to wear shorter skirts and unbutton their blouses more at Christmas time, when a higher proportion of male shoppers was anticipated.
Much of the TUC evidence to the inquiry hinged on how women can challenge discriminatory dress codes when the cost of taking a bad boss to tribunal is a whole lot of stress and a £1,200 fee. The committee took this on board and noted that the awards in such cases are so low that they are often less than the fee itself – so a woman could potentially be out of pocket even if she wins her case.
A simple solution to this problem would be to scrap employment tribunal fees. The fees which were introduced in 2013 have led to the number of discrimination claims plummeting. My colleague Sally Brett noted recently that in the year prior to the introduction of fees (2012/13) on average 16,000 people a month took a claim against their employer. By 2015/16 the figure had dropped to 7,000 a month – that’s a drop of 9,000 a month.
The Petition Committee’s recommendation that awards should be increased in cases of sex discrimination is all very well and good. But if women can’t afford the fees in the first instance, it doesn’t represent a very practical solution.
The law isn’t the only solution. The collective bargaining power of unions can be far more effective than the law in keeping bad employers in check. Just last year Unite successfully challenged British Airways’ sexist dress code and won the right for women cabin crew to wear trousers. The RMT has similarly taken employers to task over sexist train crew uniforms.
But sadly some of the sectors where these types of dress codes are most commonly found also happen to have low levels of union density. Women working in bars, fashion retail, or temping agencies, are less likely to be a union, less likely to be aware of their rights, and less likely to have a spare £1,200 lying around to take their employer to tribunal. Ensuring that all workers have access to justice has got to be part of the answer to how we enforce existing equality legislation.