High heels and workplace dress codes

26 January 2017

Two Parliamentary Committees have called for a review of the existing law on workplace dress codes and for it to be changed if necessary to make it more effective.

The Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee started an inquiry after a petition calling for it to be illegal for a company to require its female staff to wear high heels at work was signed by more than 150,000 people.

The petition was started because of an individual’s experience, but it became clear in the course of the inquiry that this was not an isolated incident - and nor is the problem confined to high heels. The Committees heard from hundreds of women about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up.

The government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread. It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. The Committees call on the government to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to change it, if necessary, to make it more effective.

The Committees state that the relationship between the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and workplace dress codes is not widely understood and that the government has said that it expects employers to inform themselves about their legal obligations and to comply with the law. This approach is not working say the Committees so the government must do more to promote understanding of the law on gender discrimination in the workplace among employees and employers alike.

The two Committees have recommended that the government substantially increase the penalties available to employment tribunals to award against employers, including the financial penalties. At present, such penalties are not a sufficient enough deterrent to breaking the law.

The petition has done a great deal to raise awareness of the law - it has prompted at least one company to change its own dress code, however it is now the responsibility of the government, say the Committees, to ensure that the law is both more widely understood and more effective in its operation.