Dresscode Discrimination: Weighing in on the “High Heels” debate

This week, there’s been some coverage in the media calling on the British government to add further protection for women in the workplace. It was highlighted that some firms required their customer-facing female members of staff to wear high heels as part of the company dress code, with reports of some women being sent home without pay if they didn’t. Following a successful petition, the issue will be discussed in parliament and responded to.

When stories like this emerge, social media gets worked up into a frenzy, and this was no exception. Fortunately, for every tweet complaining about whining Feminazis, there were dozens more in support.

You don’t have to be a genius to work out where I stand on the issue. While Companies are well within their rights to a specific dress code policy, and their employees are bound by those policies as a condition of employment, they still have a duty to provide a conductive working environment for their employees. That also works in the company’s best interest: comfortable staff = productive staff. I can’t say I’ve spent days on end, constantly on my feet wearing high-heeled shoes, but I do at least have a point of reference: whenever my wife has worn heels at a wedding, she always carries a pair of flat shoes in reserve when all the standing-around gets too much (why do wedding photographers always have to be so perfectionist?!). Forcing a woman to wear painful or uncomfortable shoes as a condition of employment, based on nothing more than an anachronistic view of heels as both “sexy” and “powerful”, is demeaning at best and oppressive at worst.

I’m no legal expert, but if an employee becomes physically unable to wear high-heeled shoes, and the company is unwilling to make a reasonable adjustment, they are in breach of the Disabilities Discrimination Act of 1995. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

In fact, company dress codes can be bad on both sexes for archaic and impractical reasons. Although I wasn’t in any physical pain (so this pales in comparison), there have been occasions when I’ve had to wear a full suit in the middle of summer, on a day close to being the hottest of the year, on the grounds that it looks “successful” and “professional”. I certainly didn’t feel very professional with beads of sweat dripping off my forehead, and I probably didn’t smell all that professional either – even antiperspirants boasting “24-hour protection” have their limits. Likewise, a woman wearing a pair of heels that are killing her feet is not going to feel all that professional or empowered either. If I was a potential customer being given a tour of a company, and my guide was grimacing with every laboured step, I’d find her a chair and go speak to whoever’s in charge. What use is privilege if you’re blind to injustice?

I was having a discussion with another Twitter user who had weighed in on this subject. Their initial tweet had diminished the oppressive aspect on the grounds that there are far greater oppressions abroad. True, but it’s pure sleight-of-hand: draw your attention to one big oppression so that you’re blind to the hundreds of little oppressions that carry on while you’re not looking. One greater oppression does not excuse the hundreds of smaller ones – they all need to be dealt with, so it’s better to pick a battle where you can influence and make a difference, however small that battle may be. These little wins all add up.

The discussion quickly turned to appearances vs. qualifications. My friend (as Jeremy Corbyn would put it) argued that you need to ‘look the part’ when you’re at work; after all, you wouldn’t entrust your savings to a bloke in a track suit, would you? Well, if you were that superficial, no you wouldn’t. I asked them if they would trust me with their savings if I was wearing an expensive, tailored Italian suit, to which they replied “more than if you were wearing anything else”. Well, you know what they say about fools and their money, don’t you?! Whether I’m wearing an Armani suit or my birthday suit, you should never trust me with your savings: my degree is in computer science, not investment banking. Looks can so easily be deceiving, but it’s hard to fake a qualification.

I’d have loved to have kept the discussion going, but when I brought up the legal implications should a woman become medically unable to wear heels during her employment, they dismissed these as infrequent and was not worth changing policies for “a couple hundred deformed”. At that point, I knew the conversation had crossed the line and wasn’t going to go anywhere constructive, so I politely took my leave.

I do agree that clothes say a lot about you, but like any other art-form it’s open to interpretation. It should always be our attitudes, our aptitudes and our behaviours that speak louder. I personally believe that a relaxed dress code at work, particularly for non-customer-facing staff, encourages freedom of expression and creativity. Dress-down Fridays where I work feel more relaxed, conductive and informal, so I don’t understand why we can’t have that every day. I also think it’s time this superficial view of professionalism was done away with – are first impressions really all that important?

These days, if someone approaches me wearing a suit, I’m initially quite wary of them – particularly salespeople. Any trickster can throw on a suit and look far more trustworthy than they actually are – when you look formal but act informal, my brain tells me something’s amiss. Put on a pair of jeans and a company-branded polo shirt, and you might find me a bit less defensive.

What are your thoughts on the whole debate? Do you think employees are right to protest when company dress codes cause severe discomfort, or do you believe that should be their cue to find work elsewhere? Do you think company dress codes are too traditional and formal? Do they even contribute anything? Let me know in the comments section below.

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