In May 2016, Nicola Thorp hit the headlines when she set up a petition calling on the government to make it unlawful for employers to require women to wear high heels at work. Ms Thorp created the petition up after she was sent home from her first day as a receptionist for a well-known international professional services firm for refusing to wear high heels. The petition gained more than 152,000 signatures and prompted a joint parliamentary enquiry by the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee culminating in a report which was published on 25 January 2017 High heels and workplace dress codes.
The committees examined how workplace dress codes can discriminate against some workers. The report highlighted that:
- Many workers affected by discriminatory dress codes are young women in insecure jobs.
- Dress codes that require women to wear high heels for extended periods of time are damaging to their health and wellbeing in the short and long term.
- Employers should assess requirements to wear high heels, and perhaps other aspects of workplace dress codes, as a health and safety risk.
- The application of legislation to individual cases is not straightforward. For example, there seems to be considerable uncertainty about whether requiring female employees to wear make-up is permissible or not.
The report's recommendations included:
- Potential changes to discrimination law;
- Increased financial penalties for employers in breach of the law;
- Detailed guidance for employers on dress codes; and
- Awareness campaigns to improve understanding of workers' rights.
What happens next?
The issue was debated by parliament and the government issued a response on 21 April 2017. The government is not going to amend the law or increase financial penalties - in its view the Equality Act 2010 already provides adequate protection and appropriate penalties. However, it has committed to publish guidance on workplace dress codes in summer 2017.
So, what is the current position regarding requiring women to wear high heels at work? Was it legal to send Ms Thorp home without pay as she refused to wear high heels?
Insisting on high heels or make-up in the workplace could leave employers exposed to sex discrimination claims, and possible health and safety issues around the wearing of high heels. The ACAS guidance on dress codes recognises that an employer might have different requirements for men and women. However, if a dress code, taken as a whole, is more onerous for one gender than the other, it may be discriminatory. Aside from this, sending a message that women should wear make-up or heels to look professional could also be damaging from an employee relations point of view.