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Brought to Heel

Amanda Chadwick provides some clarity on the thorny issue of discriminatory dress codes

Recent headlines have been dominated by claims that sexist dress codes are requiring female employees to wear high heels at work. Following an inquiry, the government has announced it will advise employers on current discrimination laws but will not create new laws at this time.
The issue of sexist dress codes was first raised when Nicola Thorp, an agency worker, was sent home because she refused her employer’s requirement to wear high heels at work on the grounds that wearing heels all day would cause her pain and male colleagues were not subject to the same rules. She started a petition ‘Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work’, calling for high heel requirements to be outlawed. The petition received over 150,000 signatures and prompted a joint inquiry in to the issue by the House of Commons Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee.
The joint report identified that, although discriminatory dress codes are outlawed, the laws are not properly followed in the workplace and female workers are not protected. They heard evidence from hundreds of female workers who revealed employers required them to wear high heels, dye their hair blonde, wear revealing clothing and reapply makeup frequently. The report called for the government to review the law and make it more effective by amending the Equality Act 2010, if necessary. They also recommended increasing awareness of the issue and increasing penalties that can be imposed on employers who break the law.

The government has announced that it will take up some of the report’s recommendations whilst noting that it does appear some employers are continuing to flout the law and apply practices that are sexist and unacceptable. However, they responded by stating that the legislation already exists through the Equality Act that makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate or harass an individual because of their sex. Therefore, there are already laws in place that protect against dress codes that place significantly greater demands on female employees than male employees.
As a move to raise awareness and knowledge of rights and responsibilities, the government is intending to produce guidance on dress codes in the workplace, working alongside Acas, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The guidance is expected to be published by summer 2017 and is aimed at making the law clearer for employers and employees.
The response to the inquiry by the government also challenges all employers to review their company dress codes and consider whether they remain relevant and lawful. Dress codes are lawful and may be required by health and safety standards, however, they must apply equally to men and women and a similar dress standard should be applied to both sexes. The dress code previously implemented by Thorp’s agency has been amended, removing the requirement for females to wear high-heeled shoes.
• Amanda Chadwick Employment law and health & safety presenter, Peninsula Business Services


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