Is it legal to force women to wear high heels at work?

News Article

A worker at a City firm was allegedly sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels. 27 year-old Nicola Thorp claims she was "laughed at" when she told her bosses she wouldn’t wear a pair of high heels.

She says she was told, on her first day as a receptionist at accountancy firm PwC, to go home without pay, unless she went out and bought a pair of shoes with heels which were between two and four inches high.

She refused and alleges Portico – the firm that runs PwC’s reception at its office in Embankment, central London – followed through with its threat.

Now Ms Thorp is petitioning the government, demanding "women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work". The petition, which has achieved more than 100,000* signatures, means MPs could debate in Parliament whether women should have to wear high heels at work.

PwC sought to distance itself from the row, saying that it had no such policy for female employees. Following media coverage, sub-contractor, Portico, issued a statement saying that it has now changed its guidelines on personal appearance so that female employees may now choose to wear smart flat shoes.

However, the issue of a dress code which includes high heels is not an isolated matter. Last year, the Israeli airline El Al, established a rule that all female cabin crew had to wear high heels until all passengers were seated.

Lara Murray, an employment law expert at Palmers, said: “I spoke about this issue on the Dave Monk Show on BBC Radio Essex on Wednesday 11th May and explained that employers can enforce dress codes against employees, which may include disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

“However, employers need to consider the Equality Act 2010 and the relevant Code of Practice issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and ensure that any particular requirements of their dress code are not discriminatory.

“Whilst it is not necessarily discriminatory to have different dress code requirements for men and women, different requirements may be unlawful is an equivalent level of smartness could otherwise be achieved.”

Frances O’Grady general secretary of the TUC, argues that the rule "reeks of sexism” and that "high heels should be a choice, not a requirement."

So, could women who are made to wear high heels at work sue their employer? Lara Murray continues: “If it could be successfully proved that a dress code had been set because the employer thought high heels made women look sexy, there would definitely be a case to answer as being sexy at work is clearly not a job requirement. To defend discrimination claims, employers need to be able to justify dress code requirements as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

“There may also be issues to consider regarding workplace accident prevention, for example a woman may have a legitimate personal injury claim if she falls or trips at work, as a result of wearing heels, which were enforced as part of a dress code policy.”

There are also long-term health concerns relating to wearing high heeled shoes. The joints of the feet can be damaged by wearing high heels, which can lead to some forms of arthritis. Regular wearing of heels increases the mechanical wear and tear around the knee joints, which might increase the risk of osteoarthritis. It also puts people with weak, lower backs at risk of slipped vertebrae.

The College of Podiatry has warned employers not to make women wear high heels at work because they can cause bunions, back problems, ankle sprains and tight calves.

Lara added: "All companies should take into consideration the need for both the comfort and smartness of their employees, as the two are not incompatible.”

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