The pain of high heels: dress codes and sex discrimination in the workplace

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The pain of high heels: dress codes and sex discrimination in the workplace

25 Jan 2017

Today, a joint report has been issued by the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons entitled “High heels and workplace dress codes”. The report follows the committees’ enquiry following a new petition calling on the government to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. This investigation followed on from the experiences of Nicola Thorp who was sent home from work in December 2015 to change out of the flat shoes she had been wearing that did not comply with her agency, Portico’s, dress code, which required women to wear shoes with a heel height of between two and four inches.

Here, Head of Employment for Kuits, Kevin McKenna, offers his insights:

“Today’s report is being featured in the media as a call on the government to enforce the law properly to ban sexist dress codes at work that discriminate against women. The report recommends that a publicity and education campaign should be launched, so that employers are made aware of their legal obligations and employees know how they can complain. Imposing a dress code can be unlawful and discriminatory on a number of grounds, not just discriminatory towards women. The report identifies that, for example, a requirement to wear high heels can have a disproportionate impact upon people who suffer from a range of physical impairments and disabilities. The report also refers to the greater risks that there are for workers over 40 who wear high heels, because studies show that balance quickly deteriorates from age 40.

“The wider issue though is that recent changes in the Tribunal system have placed significant barriers in the way of claimants that have suffered discrimination in the workplace. The number of sex discrimination cases brought before Employment Tribunals fell 68% from 2013 to 2015, following the introduction of Tribunal fees, which means that there is less case law to work with. Case law was intended to flesh out the legal concepts of the Equality Act, and so without the guidance that real cases give us, employers and employees are left in the dark about where they stand in law.

“The practical point is that if Nicola Thorp had brought an Employment Tribunal claim against her employer, she might have expected compensation of around £1000. However, the fees alone that are paid to the Tribunal (that is, without taking any legal advice from a solicitor) would have cost her £1200.

“The pain of high heels is only a symptom of an underlying problem that exists across all employment rights and the protection against discrimination in particular.”

For advice on workplace dress codes, please contact us.

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