Nanny State

High Heels a Workplace Hazard? U.K. Parliament Debates Legality of Shoe Sexism

British citizens are asking their government to "make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work."

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rachelpasch/Flickr

The U.K. Parliament today debated whether workplace rules requiring women to wear heeled shoes counts as illegal gender discrimination. The issue comes before British Members of Parliament (MPs) after more than 152,000 signed a petition requesting lawmakers "make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work."

The petition was started by London temp worker Nicola Thorp after she was sent home for wearing flat shoes. Her employment agency, Portico, had a policy saying women must wear shoes with heels between two- and four-inches high. "It's still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will," states Thorp's petition. "Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist."

In a preliminary response, the U.K. Government Equality Office reaffirmed that employers could set dress codes but "these dress codes must be reasonable," which "includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law."

Last June, the House of Commons Petitions Committee began looking into the shoe situation, issuing a report on the findings in January 2017. "It has become clear in the course of our inquiry that this was not an isolated incident—and nor is the problem confined to high heels," the cross-party group of MPs determined. "We heard from hundreds of women who told us 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."

But it's hard to know how to take these allegations with the little detail provided. There are clearly many contexts in which asking female professionals to dress more provocatively or style their hair and makeup a certain way would be highly inappropriate, but there are also plenty of particular sectors where this is not so. As long as any such demands are divulged clearly up front and applied evenly among relevant employees, it hardly seems like a matter for much collective concern.

This is not to say that employee dress-code policies are never worth challenging. But these isolated cases could surely be better resolved—and with much less collateral damage—through targeted action like employee organizing or public shaming campaigns than deputizing British bureucrats to play eye-shadow police and stilletto patrol. The Petitions Committee, however, sees things differently. In its report, it recommends more monitoring of private business dress-codes by the national government, higher penalties for companies that commit dress-code discrimination, and more public-awareness campaigns about the issue "targeted at employers, workers and students."

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68 responses to “High Heels a Workplace Hazard? U.K. Parliament Debates Legality of Shoe Sexism

  1. “It’s still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will,” states Thorp’s petition.

    No free will anywhere in that equation?

    1. Free will? What will you argue for next- free markets?

      1. Too dangerous. How will we be sure that individuals won’t waste their resources!?

        Just how are we to be sure that they won’t spend money the wrong way!? HOW DAMN YOU!?

      2. Yeah. It’s sexist when women are required to do something more. But it’s not sexist when it’s the men who must meet a higher standard.

        Take, for example, the US Army which still requires 55-year-old men to run two miles a minute faster than 19-year-old women.

        If we applied a single standard to all men and women – without regard to gender – it would eliminate women in most physical areas of endeavor, including the military and all sports. (The world records for most women’s sports are comparable to male HIGH SCHOOL athletes.)

        I say give women TRUE equality. They’ll hate it.

    2. Once you have a job in the UK you are required to serve until your employer releases you.

      1. These people find all kinds of ways to deny agency as a necessary rampart in protecting women’s rights.

  2. Her employment agency, Portico, had a policy saying women must wear shoes with heels between two- and four-inches high.

    Did Portico have this policy when she signed up with them? Does she have the right to sever ties with Portico at any time? What’s the problem here?

  3. stilletto patrol

    Nice band name.

  4. It is company policy that all humans wear clothes.

    This is going straight to the internet! I know just the hambeasts that will sign this!

    1. Some for sanitary reasons and others for aesthetic reasons. There are very few of my coworkers I’d want to see naked.

  5. As a libertarian I don’t think there should be government regulations in the matter of shoes in the workplace. On the other hand, as a human being I think requiring high heeled shoes, regardless of gender, to be cruel and inhuman working conditions.

    Any company requiring high heeled shoes should be ridiculed into bankruptcy.

    1. Because Crocs dammit, crocs!

      1. High heel crocs would be difficult to walk in. You’d have no way of knowing which way they would flop. Think of the ankle injuries!

      2. “Wearing crocs is like being blown by a dude. It feels great until you look down, then you realize you’re gay.”

        1. And yet gay guys are least likely to be seen in public with Crocs on.

          1. I hear the gays have special Croc parties where they get together in secret to wear Crocs without other gays finding out.

            1. I think you heard that wrong. Not crock parties.

          2. EXACTLY! Someone has to have a sense of style!

        2. “And then it feels better.”

          Disclaimer: I do not currently and have not at any time in the past worn crocs. I do have a pair of house-slippers and flip-flops, but from my quick internet search they do not appear to be crocs. I am, however, very pro-get-blown-by-a-dude. Because it’s awesome.

          1. something something about hipster beards and your sister…

          2. I’d offer, but your husband wouldn’t approve.

    2. Any company requiring high heeled shoes should be ridiculed into bankruptcy.

      This is the proper solution to the problem.

    3. Any company requiring high heeled shoes should be ridiculed into bankruptcy.

      There needs to be a conditional or other “as appropriate” in there somewhere.

      1. Also, it seems like a fashion shoe designer should be able to tell its female-y employees to wear heels at any given point (especially if it pays for or provides them) just as much as Caterpillar can request or OSAH require steel toes.

        1. Dammit, OSHA

  6. I don’t claim to understand fashion, but I don’t understand how people can stand to walk around in shoes that make so much noise when you walk.

    And while I can see the aesthetic advantages of heels, they are pretty ridiculous and impractical as footwear for situations where making your legs look nice isn’t a primary goal.

    1. Also, why wear them at all knowing that you’re going to kick them off the second you sit down?

      1. Don’t make me womensplain this to you.

      2. To make the buttocks more presentable for penetration in the mind’s eye.

      3. I don’t wear high-heels, but I do take my shoes off at my desk if I’m wearing anything other then my vibrams. Dress shoes? They’re off the moment I’m in the chair. Cowboy boots? Take ’em off. Sandals? Take ’em off. I just prefer being barefoot. Same reason I take my shoes off at home.

        So I won’t mark that against high-heel wearers.

        1. … and we won’t mark it against you that you just confessed to wearing vibrams 😛

          1. Find me a shoe that’s closer to being barefoot and still office-acceptable, and I’ll stop.

    2. The linoleum floor in our old building was punctured to an early grave because of attorneys who felt the need to tighten the appearance of their butts in pencil skirts and the like. One lady had four pairs in her office; the “back-ups.”

      We switched to that disgusting Pollack-style multi-colored carpeting. Plays with the hangovers like woah.

      1. We switched to that disgusting Pollack-style multi-colored carpeting. Plays with the hangovers like woah.

        But it hides stains and wear marks. Gosh.

  7. isn’t this how “Kinky Boots” got started?

  8. “these dress codes must be reasonable,” which “includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees”

    I’m sure their policies make clear neither men nor women are allowed to have beards and moustaches for both men and women must be neatly trimmed and confined to the upper lip within the edges of the mouth. Men, I know the bras are constricting, but if the women have to wear ’em so do you. Except you, Terence – the frilly pink corset and the push-up bra are right out. Especially since that’s all you’re wearing.

  9. “Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.”

    This absolutely KILLS me to say this, but…

    She’s right.

    I’m a long-time believer in women wearing high heels, but a company forcing women to wear high heels is just icky.

    1. Yeah. I think it is fair to say that dress codes that basically require women to hobble themselves are sexist as well.

      1. I hadn’t thought of that aspect. Now I’m in favor of forcing high heels.

    2. While we’re dispensing with sexist dress codes, do we really still need neckties? I can’t use it to wipe food off of my face. The only thing it really seems useful for is hanging oneself from a doorknob.

  10. All employees are required to don their assigned gray singlet during work hours.

    /employee handbook in ca. 10 years

    1. “On to each was dumped swiftly the regulation lunch ? a metal pannikin of pinkish-grey stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory Coffee, and one saccharine tablet.”

    2. All employees are required to don their assigned gray singlet during work hours.

      /employee handbook in ca. 10 years

      It has been foretold.

  11. women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up

    Because women totally won’t do this otherwise.

    1. I can see an employer requiring you to WEAR makeup, but the constant reapplication is a requirement imposed by the makeup itself.

  12. rules requiring women to wear

    Who else had rules governing fashion?

    1. The Sun King, Mohammed, Jesus, everybody. It wasn’t a hard question.

    2. USMA, USAF, USN, USA, USCG and I think the FBI CIADEAATF and the fucking Post Office

      1. Your forgot the BADTFL

  13. Yeah, great. More bona fide occupational requirement arbitrariness. Beauty matters. It’s a good, like intelligence. And it’s impossible to objectively argue that the current views of sex-specific beauty are wrong. Women engage in that realm, many hold the view that high heels are beautiful (whether they want to wear them at all times or not). How is incorporating/mirroring that *wrongfully* discriminatory? It’s like discriminating in respect to humor, to culinary taste (and ability), and so forth.
    It doesn’t become wrong because it specifically attaches to female bodies. Their shape is not the same as that of male bodies. That eliminates any compelling basis for identical standards of beauty. If anything, treating different things the same indicates unequal treatment. This can’t be decided on the basis of distributive justice either. Standards of female beauty attach to wellness. While high heels may be bad, the overall standard of beauty arguably improves women’s health relative to men’s. The entire matter is too intricate for a centralized ruler and for a single rule, other than that of freedom of contract.

    1. Their shape is not the same as that of male bodies

      Eh, maybe not The Same, but it’s time to face the fact that 95% of humans are not attractive. Same goes for intelligence. “Why aren’t there more women in the sciences?!” There aren’t that many humans, of either sex, smart enough for the job.

    2. In general, you are right. But heels aren’t very healthy or practical. I think an argument could be made that requiring women to wear them is wrongly discriminatory. I’m still not convinced that an employer shouldn’t be allowed to require it, but it’s a shitty policy, basically telling women that they have to dress in such a way as to expose them to injury and make it difficult for them to move quickly. It’s not bad because of anything to do with standards of beauty. It’s bad because it’s unhealthy and impractical.

      1. Try this, Zeb. Companies don’t create standards of beauty. They merely rely on standards of beauty that can be found in society. A concept of feminine beauty entails many things, and carries several trade-offs. It’s impossible to determine whether female beauty is a better – or worse – deal than male beauty. Removing one trade-off (high heels bad for health) can’t be said to establish a fair balance. The balance may have already been fair, or even in favor of women. Women have a greater range of clothes to choose from than men, as a matter of standards of beauty and available fashion. Should employers be forced to make this range equal to that of men, which means limiting women’s choices? If it doesn’t limit women’s choices, it transfers society standards that (in isolation) disadvantage men. By demanding high heels it does the same, it transfers society’s standards that (in isolation) disadvantage women. Equal treatment either requires massive intervention from employers – making men and women the same/identical in terms of standards of beauty – or it requires/allows them to rely on society’s standards of beauty. (Note that a recurrent problem here is the artificial separation of the spheres of work and of society.)

  14. ENB: “stilletto patrol”

    Finally happy to see police officers “protect and serve”.

    1. and eye mask, & fish nets…

  15. “But these isolated cases could surely be better resolved?and with much less collateral damage?through targeted action like employee organizing or public shaming campaigns”
    Um… am I the only one that remembers last years 30 June article “Intern Fired for Dress Code Petition Is the Case Against Social Justice Education”?

    As for boycotts, we see that over and over again with LGBT issues. When they’re successful, they get attacked as anti-Freedom, censorship, and so-on.

    So I’m not sure why the woman/women in question should care what libertarians/Libertarians? think of their choices.
    ________
    ?Or at least, libertarians/Libertarians as represented by the Reason.com writers and commentators.

    1. “So I’m not sure why the woman/women in question should care what libertarians/Libertarians? think of their choices….”
      Of their choices to impose punitive laws on companies regarding what they can do with their money? Well, let’s see, that ‘choice’ us both unethical and moronic.

      How about this: if you don’t like the company’s dress code, find another fucking job. If they want to pay someone to dress up like a chicken, it’s their right.

  16. I can’t wait till AR glasses are mandatory so everyone can look the way we want them to look.

    Safe spaces for everybody.

    Ear buds have already taken that sense out of play…

  17. Yeah well we need you to wear this clown costume because of company policy says we need you to wear this clown costume. Were does it end were is the line?And I agree ridicule them out of business.

    1. “And I agree ridicule them out of business.”

      What’s wrong when a company only employs women who like to wear high heels?

      1. If the women or even men knew before they agreed to work for said busines that its was company policy to wear high heels then thats on them but to not tell someone about the policy and then tell them is being deceitful another thing i would ask is what value do high heels bring to the busines other than sexual

        1. Beauty is pleasant. Quite possibly high heels also are connected to a certain understanding of femininity more broadly. Manifesting that has value, to many. I’m not saying all workplaces should be like that. But there’s value in some being like that.

          1. I think that if you have time to look at women’s feet at work then maybe your not worth the money and should be reprimanded or fired but if you what to have women in high heels at work just hire strippers

  18. I’m hoping they pass a law making shoes illegal

  19. I do honestly think that requiring high heels is a stupid policy.

    However, getting government involved is even stupider.

    Appropriate response: if it’s such a big deal, form your own competing company where flats are allowed and you will attract better talent and drive them out of business.

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