“Politicians won’t do it – so it’s up to us to keep fighting workwear sexism”

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Lucy Mangan
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The government fluffed its chance to tackle sexist office dress codes. We must keep fighting the good fight, says Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan. 

When I contemplate, after 15 years of working from home, the idea of returning to an office job, there are many thoughts that crowd my mind and demonstrate how thoroughly deinstitutionalised I have become.

Braving the rush hour would take my entire week’s courage allowance. Mustering the discipline to get up and go to bed at sensible times would be beyond me. To have to have lunch at something resembling lunchtime – or to work through, with no lunch at all! – would seem like a brutal contravention of my human rights.

But none of these takes my breath away more than the idea of having to be uncomfortable every single minute of every single day.

Because once you’ve been out of the office swing of things, you see most women’s daily professional rig for what it is: an expensive, time-consuming collocation of more-or-less torturous absurdities. Such as tights. They’re awful nylon sausage skins, and in summer they’re worse. Skirts are restrictive, and often require Spanx. The only good thing about bras is the relief of taking them off when you get home. Make-up and manicures eat into the very two things that work is meant to provide – money and leisure time.

And finally, of course, there are the shoes. I now have trainers I have relegated to the back of the wardrobe for not being quite squishy enough, and I cry (and fall over) at the discomfort of a mere court or kitten heel. How people manage in anything more I honestly do not know. It boggles my mind almost as much as it must boggle their bunions.

She’d rather walk home barefoot than wear those heels for 10 hours a day

The UK government recently had a chance to turn its back on these expectations by providing official guidelines making it clear that the law forbids sexist dress codes in the workplace. These recommendations came from the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee after they co-investigated the 2015 case of Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from her job at a corporate multinational for refusing to wear high heels.

Hold on to your hats (and also be thankful that no one is expected to go in for millinery any more), but the government has not done so. Here was their chance to throw their weight behind legislation that already exists, but they fluffed it. The new guide has sidestepped every issue, especially the unwritten-expectation aspect of all dress codes, and left employers as free to impose what I believe is properly legally termed ‘cockamamie bullsh*t’ as ever they were.

It really matters because clothes really matter and because comfort really matters. An unwritten rule of the workplace – and of life, generally – is that women should, if possible (and if they want to be accorded any attention at all), look conventionally attractive. Conventionally sexy, ideally, but attractive will do.

Men, meanwhile, have to look clean. That’s about it. And there’s always a ‘rebel’ who doesn’t even have to do that. What a lad. And however smart they choose to look, in a suit and flat shoes, they are always basically comfortable. Neither their feet nor their minds are crippled by pain.

Without overt, official contradiction it is harder to fight these unfair expectations. But if you are working in an office that still demands its women look like its men want them to look, remember there is anti-discrimination law on your side, even if the government is not. It just means it needs a stiletto through its quivering, cowardly heart.

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