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The 1950s called, they want their dress codes back

Leigh Day intern Queenie Djan is dispirited by the persistent existence of dress codes in the workplace

Posted on 05 September 2018

Queenie Djan writes:

Last month, a waitressing job advert for a trendy bar in Shoreditch created uproar across social media. The job description stated “Physical attractiveness is necessary for this role”. To most of us, this requirement seems plainly absurd, outdated and backward.

However, when held up against various companies dress codes in the UK I’m incredibly sad to say that this prerequisite for the role is not that unheard of or unique in its sexist demands. The discriminatory nature of these demands is often more subtly stated than this example – yet they are still present all the same. They are often dressed up in the form of an unnegotiable necessity to wear heels of a certain length or makeup being mandatory. This begs the question: why in 2018 do employers still have the powers to dictate and implement discriminatory dress codes?

In 2016, Nichola Thorp, a 27 year old receptionist hit headlines when she pioneered a petition against these very dress codes. She was sent home unpaid from PWC due to her arriving to her first shift in flat shoes despite the companies’ dress code stating a minimum of 2 inch heels must be worn. Their now reworked dress code also included ‘Makeup to be worn at all times and regularly reapplied, with a minimum of: Light blusher, Lipstick or tinted gloss, Mascara, Eye shadow, foundation/powder’.

Nichola’s petition gained over 150,000 signatures and brought the debate over dress rules to parliament’s doors.

As a woman, I and obviously many more believe rules of this nature regarding our appearance are clearly destructive in more ways than one. The Fawcett Society told the inquiry ‘that requiring women to abide by often sexualized dress codes sent out the message that their appearance was of more value than their skills, experience or voices.’ It relays the message that a woman’s worth as a professional goes only so far as her appearance. That is a doctrine no woman should ever be forced to stomach. A woman’s ability to do her job, whether as a receptionist or CEO, is not improved whatsoever by a flick of mascara or a kitten heel. As females, we are not on show in our workplace for anyone, yet these dress codes promote this very ideology.  As a woman in the working world we already face constant obstacles everyday such as the gender pay gap. Therefore it stuns me that companies will go as far as adding the need to wear heels to the universal requirement to turn up and do a good job for the working day.

Furthermore, putting aside the inherent sexism, the obvious health risks of a mandatory high heel requirement propose a concern. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, they recently decided to ban dress codes which require female employees to wear high heels. Their reasoning stated that these requirements are a health and safety issue which put workers at risk of slipping or falling as well as long-term injuries to the feet, legs and back. Unfortunately, the same progress cannot be seen in the UK about the eradication of these archaic dress rules. Thorp’s petition prompted a debate in Westminster which subsequently called into question the effectiveness of the existing law. It arose that the Equality Act 2010 has not protected workers in the way it was designed to as these discriminatory dress codes remain prevalent and widespread in the UK. This was evidenced in the report which stated the MPs were inundated with examples and accounts of women experiencing ‘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 makeup’.

Unfortunately the ban Nichola requested was initially rejected. However, In May 2018, the Government Equalities Office finally went on to produce its own guidance on how workplace dress codes and uniforms should comply with equality legislation. Disappointingly, the guidance is vague, elusive and therefore incredibly unhelpful. Ambiguous statements are included like requiring makeup and manicured nails “is likely to be unlawful”. It does not encompass any actual measures to toughen up sanctions on companies with these discriminatory dress codes. Alternatively, the outcome should have been an outright blanket ban to be put on all dress codes requiring make up and high heels.

I have to ask myself if this substandard solution is really that surprising. Our current prime minster, Theresa May herself commented she ‘believed “traditional gender-based workplace dress codes … encourage a sense of professionalism in the workplace” during the last time there was parliamentary considerations on dress rules in 2011. I’m rather dispirited at the fact our 21st century government won’t make the stand to abolish these ridiculous rules.  It’s obvious we still live in a male dominated work environment which places women under a constant pressure and scrutiny to prove themselves. Although beauty bias is alive and kicking, employers should take the first steps to reduce it beginning with misogynistic dress codes.


Michael Newman
Discrimination Employment Group claims

Michael Newman

Michael Newman is a discrimination and employment law specialist