How discriminatory dress codes at work are digging their heels in

Discriminatory dress codes are still widespread in British workplaces according to a recent report by MPs. Women, they found, are held to a far more exacting standard than men and a change in the law that governs dress codes has been called for as a result. Unfortunately, the law alone will not be enough to change things.

The debate that ensued over whether or not high heels should legitimately form part of a dress code for women is a case in point. Women’s shoes remain an important part of popular culture, whether in the form of the red stiletto used by companies like Virgin Atlantic in their award-winning Still Red Hot campaign or in fairy tales such as the delicate glass slipper that was Cinderella’s route out of sweeping cold fireplaces.

This is not only a Western issue. For centuries, Chinese women endured a more extreme version of foot crippling fashion. Described as “lotus feet”, it was the cultural custom for women to have their feet tightly bound into a disabling shape – because it was deemed beautiful.

A lotus shoe for bound feet. The ideal length for a bound foot was about 10cm. Vassil/wikimedia

As anthropologist Jo Farrell documented in an extraordinary photographic project on some of the last Chinese women living with bound feet, culture dictated that bound feet were a prerequisite for marriage. One woman, Su Xi, told Farrell that if she tried to unbind her feet as a young woman, her grandmother would cut a slice of skin off her toes to punish her. And this was in the 1940s, decades after foot binding became illegal in China.

Pain and long-term damage

Fast-forward to December 2015 and Nicola Thorp, a woman working as a temporary receptionist at financial services company PwC in London, is sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels. Thorp was told that the smart, flat shoes she was wearing did not comply with her employer’s specific requirement for women to wear shoes with a two to four inch high heel.

As a result of her experience, Thorp started a petition calling for it to be made “illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work”. It was signed by more than 150,000 people, prompting the recent parliamentary inquiry.

The inquiry involved hundreds of women and expert witnesses from trade unions, political groups and professional bodies, including podiatrists, who provided evidence of the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high-heeled shoes for long periods of time. But it became clear during the inquiry that the problem was by no means confined to shoes.


Women also reported being told to dye their hair a particular colour, to wear revealing clothing, and to regularly reapply a minimum amount of makeup. No men came forward to say that the same rules, or even informal pressures, applied to them – they too have office dress codes but they are generally less punishing.

Nor, as also became evident in the report, is legislation the only answer.

As the report acknowledges, legislation is already in place (in the form of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of characteristics like gender (as well as disability and race). So either the existing law is unclear, or it is not widely understood – or it is simply being ignored. Certainly, the continuation of such discrimination has many potential advantages for employers.

The Fawcett Society, a women’s rights charity, emphasised this in their contribution to the inquiry. It highlighted the extent to which sexualised dress codes, which tell a woman that how she looks is more important that what she says or does, are a good way to justify paying her less and demeaning her career achievements.

Reinforcing stereotypes

By perpetuating a very narrow ideal of what it means to look like a woman, such codes reinforce persistent stereotypes. These might serve to further marginalise LGBT people, older and disabled workers, as well as people from ethnic minority groups in the labour market.

Yet while this is about so much more than shoes, we should not trivialise the significance of shoes in this discussion and the issues they raise.

As management professor Emma Bell has written high heels are powerful, fetishised symbols in our society, signifying the seductive power attributed to women, particularly in the media. They are “a marker of high status, despite their impracticality and physical strain that they put on a woman’s body”. It is precisely this double-bind that makes high heels arguably today’s lotus shoes.

By wearing heels, women evoke a seductive power, respect and admiration through a form that ironically, and painfully, undermines their capacity to meaningfully experience any of these.

If the goal of getting and keeping a husband was what foot binding was about, today’s women are told that wearing heels (or the right hair colour, clothing or makeup) is their route to securing a job. Both are a form of economic security. The target may have changed but the means have not, as women’s bodies continue to be manipulated and reduced to aesthetic objects in the labour market.

So while the enforcement of relevant legislation and proposed fines for noncompliant employers is an important step forwards, on its own it will never be enough to tackle the wider aesthetic ideals and processes of objectification that underpin discriminatory dress codes in the workplace.