Belfast Telegraph

Female workers are told: go blonde, dress in revealing outfits and wear high heels, new office study finds

By Staff Reporters

Women workers have been told to dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits and constantly reapply make-up, a study into workplace dress codes has found.

The "troubling" experiences suffered by female staff were unearthed by a parliamentary report into the case of a woman sent home without pay for not wearing high heels.

More than 150,000 people signed a petition in support of London receptionist Nicola Thorp.

The 27-year-old arrived at finance company PwC to be told she had to wear shoes with a "2in to 4in heel" and when she refused and complained male colleagues were not asked to do the same, she was sent home without pay.

The Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee said it became clear in the course of its inquiry that this was not an isolated incident.

"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 blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply 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," said the report.

The Fawcett Society told the inquiry 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.

Helen Jones, who chairs the Petitions Committee, said: "The Government has said that 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. The Government must now accept that it has a responsibility to ensure that the law works in practice as well as in theory."

A PwC spokesman said: "PwC outsources its front of house and reception services to a third party supplier.

"We first became aware of this matter on May 10, some five months after the issue arose.

"PwC does not have specific dress guidelines for male or female employees."

Deborah Harris: 'It's a vanity thing ... I just pay price with sore back and feet'

I love wearing my high heels to my work in Belfast International Airport and I wouldn’t be without them.

I am 5ft 8ins but I still just feel smarter and more confident when I’m in heels — often, I’ll wear nude court shoes with a medium heel of around three inches.

It’s also just my preference to wear skirts and dresses in work. We do have a dress-down Friday but even then I’ll usually wear something with a heel, such as boots.

In fact, all the female managers in the airport dress similarly, and we joke that we all have the same Marks & Spencer court shoes with three-inch heels — in three colours, black, navy and nude.

I’m not on my feet all day in work but if I’m out and about I would get sore feet. But that’s my own fault and it is really a vanity thing that I don’t wear flat shoes. I just pay the price of the sore back and the sore feet.

Generally speaking, the men we work with and hold meetings with are always dressed in suits and ties but I do notice that the men who work for low-cost airlines like Ryanair dress smartly, but with jeans — a bit like the style of their boss, Michael O’Leary.

Having said that, I have two young children so once I’m home, I kick off my heels straight away.  But we don’t have any dress code in the airport, and there’s no suggestion that we would insist on women wearing heels.

Deborah Harris is public relations manager at Belfast International Airport

Grainne McGarvey: 'Women should have the freedom to decide'

I’ve never believed that working in the business environment means that you should wear a specific ‘corporate’ uniform such as a suit, skirt or in this case high heels. 

I occasionally wear high heels to work but only if I have a short meeting or event. I would very rarely wear them all day but if I do, I usually take them off under my desk or bring a pair of flats in my bag to change into.

Styles in the office workplace change and just like men now have the flexibility to wear ties or not, women too should have the freedom to wear heels or not.

If a law were introduced saying it was compulsory for men to wear ties to work there would be uproar.

As long as the female worker looks professional, neat and tidy I don’t think the height of the heel should even come into it.

Fashion aside, wearing high heels for eight hours a day is incredibly uncomfortable and can lead to major podiatry issues as well as bad posture.

Being comfortable in work and not being distracted by significant pain, especially in one’s feet makes for a more effective worker.

I don’t think having to wear high heels in work is in the best interest of working women and women and the fact that so many women signed the petition shows many feel the same way.

Grainne McGarvey is managing director of Belfast-based Pulse PR

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