The government has been urged to uphold the law on sexist dress rules in the workplace by enforcing legislation designed to protect employees from unscrupulous bosses.
The Parliamentary committees for Petitions and for Women and Equalities have issued a joint report on the subject following a petition signed by more than 138,500 people and led by Nicola Thorp, a London receptionist, who was sent home from work without pay in December 2015, for wearing formal flat shoes rather than high heels.
At the time she was working at the London office of top accountancy firm PwC. Ms Thorp refused to obey the rules of her employment agency, Portico, that she should wear shoes with heels that were between two and four inches high – with her male colleagues not being required to follow similar rules.
"This may have started over a pair of high heels, but what it has revealed about discrimination in the UK workplace is vital, as demonstrated by the hundreds of women who came forward via the committees’ online forum," said Ms Thorp.
The report published in response to the petition, entitled High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, states that while the Equality Act 2010 bans discriminatory dress rules at work, in reality the law is often not applied properly to protect workers of either gender.
During their investigation the Committees had 730 responses on the government web forum in just one week, with men and women reporting a number of discriminatory practices within their own workplace.
Chair of the Petitions Committee, Helen Jones MP, said: "The way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay.
"It’s clear from the stories we’ve heard from members of the public that Nicola’s story is far from unique.
The report states: "The Equality Act is clear in principle in setting out what constitutes discrimination in law. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in some sectors of the economy. We 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."
Lara Murray, an employment law expert with Palmers said: “Many employees have felt aggrieved by sexist dress codes but have not always been aware of their rights to legal redress and have often suffered in silence.
“In its report, the parliamentary committee has now recommended a publicity campaign should be launched to ensure that employers know their legal obligations and that workers know how they can complain effectively should their rights be breached.
“However, the most significant change is a call for the existing law to be enforced more stringently, with employment tribunals being given the power to apply bigger financial penalties where they feel that a worker’s rights have not been upheld and require guilty employers to pay compensation to every worker affected by their discriminatory rules.”
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