Shocking examples of workplace sexism were laid bare in a major Government report prompted by a London office worker being sent home from work without pay for refusing to wear high heels. Nicola Thorp who was employed as a temporary worker by PwC’s outsourced reception firm, Portico, launched a campaign after her experience. Within a few days her petition had over 100,000 signatures and sparked a huge debate about workplace dress rules. An enquiry was instigated by the Petitions and Women and Equalities committees with a report being released this month calling on MPs to review the law.
The report said “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 blond, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly apply make-up.”
“The Government has said that the existing law is clear and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread.”
“It is therefore clear that the existing law is not fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. 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.”
Ms Thorp said “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.”
“The current system favours the employer and is failing employees. It is crucial that the law is amended.”
Campaign group, the Fawcett Society, told the enquiry that requiring women to abide by gendered dress codes, often of a sexualised nature, sent out the message that their appearance was of more value than their skills, experience or voices.
“Having a society where it is normal to judge women in their professional life by their appearance and their shoes is not just ridiculous but demeans women.”
“Employers need to focus on what drives productivity and enables their staff to feel part of a team. It isn’t a pair of high heels.”
That everyday sexism exists is concerning enough but the bigger problem is how to tackle it. When it comes to less overt and unconscious acts of daily sexism the line between acceptable and unacceptable, lawful and unlawful, insulting and jocular becomes much harder to define or even recognise. It is about changing mind sets and workplace culture, alongside writing policies and setting rules.
The report does recommend that a publicity campaign be launched to ensure that employers know their legal obligations and that workers know how they can complain effectively and I hope they do.