It’s not often that musical theatre is discussed in the British parliament, but one MP today resorted to just that when discussing the dress codes women are sometimes subjected to at work.
Struggling to think of a work situation that both men and women would be asked to wear high heeled shoes, one MP came up with the example of the ‘Kinky Boots’ musical.
MPs discussed workplace dress codes after a petition to “make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels” was signed more than 152,000 times. All petitions which gain over 100,000 signatures are considered for debate.
The petition arose when Nicola Thorp, who was working as a receptionist, was told her smart, black, but flat shoes were not acceptable for work. Her company Portico required women to wear heels of between five and ten centimeters in height. She was sent home without pay when she refused to buy another pair of shoes and return to work when she had done so.
Helen Jones MP, the Chair of the committee which receives and answers petitions, opened the debate by describing the findings of a recently released report into the same subject. The report found that wearing high heels for prolonged durations can damage a person’s health and wellbeing “both in the short and long term”. It also suggested the government should launch an awareness and advice campaign, specifically targeting the tourism, travel and retail sectors.
Jones pointed out that many women are put off applying for jobs because of dress codes which forces women to wear high heels and make-up. She quoted the director general of the Institute of Recruiters, who said: “definitely such dress codes reduced the pool of women applying for jobs”.
But the report found that sexist work place dress codes went further than just high heels and make-up. Jones said the Committee heard from “women who were told near Christmas to unbutton their blouses… to sell to male customers”.
The government told the report that the existing law on workplace discrimination is “clear”, and the kind of dress code that Ms Thorp experienced is “already unlawful”.
However, MPs noted that despite their status regarding the law, discriminatory dress codes are still widespread.
Government minister Caroline Dineage said she has written to trade bodies to remind employers about their duties under the equalities act.
After quoting Ginger Rodgers, Liz McInnes MP said women should “no longer go backwards in high heels” but instead “go forwards in sensible shoes”. “Nothing gladdens my heart more than a comfy shoe in a wide fitting”, McInnes added.
The debate took place in the same week as International Women’s Day, which as Gill Furniss MP pointed out, is an event which celebrates the “great strides” women have made towards equality. Furniss added that the debate should act as a reminder that there is “still some way to go” before complete parity is achieved.
However, it is hoped that both the original petition, the subsequent report and Monday’s debate will have gone some way to raising the public awareness of the issue of dress codes and their legality.