Sexist office dress codes must be addressed, say MPs

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Moya Crockett
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In a poke in the eye for institutionalised sexism, MPs have said that British women face “troubling” levels of dress code discrimination in the workplace – and called for tougher legislation to prevent female employees being ordered to wear heels, make-up or revealing clothes.

Two Commons’ committees found hundreds of examples of British women being given sexist instructions at work that were not issued to their male co-workers, the Guardian reports, leading MPs to call for an overhaul of current equality laws.

“We heard from hundreds of women who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods of time,” said the authors of the parliamentary report, published on Wednesday.

MPs said that they had also found cases of “women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up.”

The findings are a vindication for Nicola Thorp, the receptionist sent home in May 2016 for refusing to wear heels at work. The report was launched after Thorp went public with her treatment at accounting firm PwC, where she was told that female employees had to wear a “2in to 4in heel”.

Thorp started a petition calling for a change in the law to protect women against sexist office dress codes. It was signed by more than 150,000 people, prompting the government’s Women and Equalities Committee and the Petitions Committee to invite the public to send in other examples of discriminatory office dress codes.

MPs found that requirements to wear make-up or short skirts made some workers feel sexualised by their employer, hindering their career progression. They also expressed concern that gendered dress codes reinforced stereotypes which could make LGBT workers feel uncomfortable.

Thorp said that she was “absolutely chuffed to bits” by the committees’ recommendation for an update to the law.

“This wasn’t just about shoes. It was about the treatment of women in the workplace,” she said. “The petition took off and I was very pleased to see the debate over heels grow to one about clothes, and continue moving on to other aspects about how women are treated in a work environment.

She added: “We now need to see the government take these recommendations on board. The law should not just be changed but enforced.”

Watch: We made the Stylist men wear high heels for a day

The parliamentary report suggested that the government’s response to dress code discrimination has so far been inadequate, contradicting the previous verdict of Theresa May. When women’s minister in 2011, the now prime minister dismissed worries about sexist uniform rules, saying: “I have not found that traditional gender-based workplace dress codes have held me back. I indeed believe that they encourage a sense of professionalism in the workplace.”

However, MPs stated that more needs to be done to ensure that women are not subjected to discrimination at work.

“The government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted [Thorp’s] petition is already unlawful,” says the report. “Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread.”

MPs concluded that “the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work”, and called on the government “to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to change it, if necessary, to make it more effective.”


Images: iStock, Rex Features