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Workplace Dress Codes (High Heels)

Volume 622: debated on Monday 6 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 129823 relating to high heels and workplace dress codes.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I also wish to discuss the joint report by the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee on the same subject.

Hon. Members here will remember how the petition came about. Nicola Thorp, who created the petition, worked for an agency called Portico. In December 2015, she was sent for a job as a temporary receptionist at the headquarters of PricewaterhouseCoopers in London. When she arrived, she was told that the smart black shoes she was wearing were unacceptable because they were flat; at the time, Portico’s dress code specified a heel height of between two and four inches—for women, not men. She was offered the opportunity to go out and buy a pair of high heels. When she refused, she was sent home without pay.

Two things immediately struck me about that story. First, there was never a suggestion that Ms Thorp was not smartly dressed; anyone who knows her knows that she is impeccably turned out at all times. Secondly, it was clear that wearing high heels was a requirement that impacted far more on women than on men. In fact, most of Portico’s dress code at the time—to its credit, it has since changed this—was about how women should look. Not only were women to wear high heels, but they were compelled to wear make-up. It was specified that they should wear a minimum of foundation, powder, light blusher—I am not sure whether “light” referred to its colour or its application—mascara, eye shadow and lipstick or tinted lip gloss: not just any old lip gloss, but tinted lip gloss. Make-up was to be regularly reapplied throughout the day, and women were excused from wearing it only if they had a medical condition.

Women also had to wear what were described as skin-coloured tights, but the sort of skin-coloured tights that I would wear—taupe, natural tan and so on—are not at all suitable for women of colour. In fact, at one time, a black woman who turned up in black tights was told she should change them for a flesh-coloured pair, which were, of course, not the colour of her flesh at all. Portico even specified the acceptable shades of nail varnish; there was a colour chart.

The Petitions Committee decided to investigate these issues, and asked the Women and Equalities Committee to join us; I am very grateful to members of that Committee for their help and support on this. We took evidence from employees and Portico, the TUC and the Institute of Recruiters; the Confederation of British Industry declined to give evidence—an attitude it might want to rethink in future when dealing with my Committee. We also heard from barristers who specialise in employment law, and most importantly from women themselves; we set up a web forum on which they could tell us their experiences.

It is fair to say that what we found shocked us. I was going to say that we found attitudes that belonged more in the 1950s than in the 21st century, but the 1850s is probably more accurate. We found that women—especially young women in vulnerable employment—were exploited at work and threatened with dismissal if they complained. They were forced to bear pain all day, wear totally unsuitable clothing for the tasks they were asked to perform, or dress in a way that they felt sexualised their appearance and was demeaning but which they had to put up with if they needed a job. For that reason, I am very grateful to the women who came forward to give evidence to us in public, because that took a great deal of courage—courage that I would probably not have had at their age.

Let me deal with high heels first. There are people who think that we should not have investigated this at all—in fact, they think it is a bit of a joke. Yes, it is true that women sometimes wear high heels, but there is plenty of evidence about the damage from wearing heels long term; that is well known and has been for some time. We received written evidence from the College of Podiatry and individual podiatrists on our web forum setting out just what that damage is. Wearing high heels long term alters balance, reduces flexion in the ankle and weakens calf muscles. Over time, that can make women much more prone to a number of problems, including stress fractures, Morton’s neuroma, ankle sprains and bunions, and it causes a reduction in balance that lasts into old age, putting people more at risk of falls.

Most importantly, we heard from women who told us that they were forced to wear high heels even during pregnancy; that their feet hurt so much at the end of the day that they could not walk; and that their feet bled while they were working. When they tried to raise those issues, they were dismissed. Nicola Thorp told us that:

“Girls would be in tears because their feet were bleeding…and you’d just get laughed at”.

That is not a joke for any woman—it is particularly not a joke for older women who may not be able to wear heels or for women with disabilities. In fact, many women gave evidence that they were put off applying for certain kinds of jobs because of the dress codes. That evidence was confirmed by the director general of the Institute of Recruiters, who told us that such dress codes “definitely” reduced the pool of women applying for jobs. We also heard how unsuitable being made to wear heels was for the tasks that those women were expected to perform at work, such as moving furniture, walking long distances—we heard from people who had been in cabin crew and had to walk long distances in airports—standing all day and even climbing ladders. It was not funny.

We discovered that few employers carried out a health and safety assessment on this issue. Portico told us that it had not done so, and it is not alone. We heard evidence from both the TUC and the Institute of Recruiters that there is very little information available to employers about this kind of footwear problem; there is plenty of information online and on the ACAS website about when people should wear steel-toe-capped boots and so on, but there is not very much on the health and wellbeing issues surrounding footwear.

Dress codes that impact more on women go much further than making them wear high heels. We heard from women who could not even travel to work without wearing full make-up or else they would be disciplined. We heard from cabin crew who were all forced to wear the same shade of lipstick. We heard from women who were told near Christmas to unbutton their blouses a bit when selling to male customers. We even heard of a women being told to dye her hair blonde.

The problem with these issues is not just that they are discriminatory and impact more on women; it is that they both stem from and feed into an attitude to women in the workplace that is totally reprehensible and concentrates on a stereotypical appearance, rather than on skills that women can bring to the job. Our witnesses told us how demeaning they found that.

One woman who had worked as a cabin crew member told us that she thought her appearance was sexualised for the sake of the business, which was both dehumanising and humiliating, given that male cabin crew were simply expected to look smart; those of us who fly regularly will know exactly what she meant by that. Another woman who worked in retail was told near Christmas to unbutton her blouse a bit and wear shorter skirts to sell to male customers, which she felt devalued her skills as a saleswoman and her knowledge of the products.

It gets worse. Frequently, these issues go hand in hand with a work environment in which women are harassed and younger women in particular have to put up with daily comments about their bodies from managers and are exposed to unwanted attention from customers. We heard, for instance, of women being asked when they were finishing work; of women receiving unwanted attention online, amounting to harassment; of people trying to find out where women lived or, if they were abroad, what hotel they were staying in; and even of women being followed home from work by customers. All that is unacceptable in the 21st century. It degrades women.

The Government think that the law is fairly clear on this. In their answer to the petition, they were clear that the requirement to wear high heels, as experienced by Nicola Thorp, is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. We received some legal evidence that suggested the law is not quite so clear. The legal opinions we heard suggested that a conventional dress code, for want of a better term, might not constitute direct discrimination under the Equality Act, because men and women tend to dress differently. However, if that dress code impacted more on one sex than another, it was likely to be indirect discrimination. The problem is that indirect discrimination can be justified if it is reasonably necessary in pursuit of a legitimate end, but there is not a proper definition of “legitimate end”.

More importantly, not only can tribunals decide cases differently in different parts of the country, but very few cases are getting to tribunal at all. We heard that there is very little case law or advice for employers. When I asked the managing director of Portico, during our evidence session, whether it had occurred to him that his company’s dress code might be discriminatory, he said that it had not at all. That is one reason why we suggest that the Government need to provide much more information to employers about not only the health and safety aspects of their dress code but what may constitute discrimination. That is particularly true for smaller employers that do not have in-house solicitors and HR departments.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. The evidence in our hearings about what is happening on a day-to-day basis was pretty shocking, to be completely honest—particularly as a man. My question relates to the information provided for not only businesses but individuals. It is quite clear that we are not seeing enough cases coming forward. Where can information become available, so that there is greater resilience within the group of women affected by this?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I will come on to that issue later in my speech. It is very important that people have information about their rights, but information by itself is not enough.

We found that there were real issues about enforcement and access to justice. Women told us that when they raised these concerns, they were belittled. One said,

“I was told that I would be fired straight away if I chose to put flats on.”

Another was told that she would have plenty of time to rest her feet when she was unemployed. Women do not take these matters further for several reasons. Many of them are in insecure employment; they may be on fixed-term or zero-hours contracts. They may not have worked for long enough to bring a claim against their employer.

Awards in this area are fairly low. We were given a ballpark figure of £250 to £1,000, which is less than the cost of going to a tribunal nowadays. That is simply not good enough. A right that cannot be enforced is not a right at all. We also found that these cases were not getting as far as a tribunal all the time. That is why we are calling on the Government to look at increasing the penalties on employers for breach of the law. Penalties should be set at a level that does not discourage people from bringing a claim but disincentivises employers from breaking the law. As one of our witnesses said, in the current climate, employers take a punt that no one will bring a claim.

We have a situation where not only is this happening in an insecure workforce, but because the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget has been cut, it is no longer bringing as many test cases to test out the law. We are in the same position with the Equality Act as we were many years ago with the Equal Pay Act 1970. The Equality Act sets out general principles, but because English law proceeds by an accumulation of case law it needs to be fleshed out by people bringing cases. We also think that if the Government gave tribunals the power to issue injunctions to stop the use of discriminatory dress codes, these cases could be dealt with more quickly.

Funding and access to justice are key issues. We are very grateful that since our report was issued, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the Equality Advisory and Support Service to notify it of any cases involving dress codes, so that it can decide whether litigation and enforcement action are required. We are also grateful that it has started a campaign on social media to inform women of their rights. However, as the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) said, much more needs to be done. We are calling on the Government to start a campaign targeted at areas where people are most vulnerable, such as the hospitality industry, to inform employees of their rights and employers of their obligations.

To build on a point the hon. Lady has made, does she agree that it is one thing to inform people of their rights, but it is critical that employment tribunal issue fees are set at an affordable level, so that people can exercise their rights and seek a remedy in the courts?

I absolutely agree. Since the fees were raised in 2013, these cases have fallen off a cliff; they are not being brought any more. We have to remember that many of these women work in non-unionised workplaces, so a union cannot bring a claim. The Equal Pay Act was extended by unions bringing test cases on behalf of their workforce. That is not happening any more.

Ultimately, women must be able to enforce their rights. If only those who are well paid and in secure jobs can do that, not those who are low paid and in insecure employment, we do not have equality. If older women or women with disabilities are deterred from applying for jobs because of the dress code, we do not have equality. If women are forced to bear pain all day at work or put up with a toxic working environment, we do not have equality. If young women are subject all the time to comments about their bodies at work, we do not have equality. What our Committee thought would be a nice, limited inquiry exposed a number of issues in the workplace that will need further study and action by the Government.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is most generous. One issue that has come up time and again, not just in relation to this report but from the women and equalities perspective generally, is the fact that the concept of dual discrimination is not enshrined in the Equality Act currently. The hon. Lady makes a powerful point in relation to both age and gender. Does she agree that it would be appropriate for the Government to consider implementing the dual discrimination provisions to help women to bring their cases to trial?

Yes, I could not agree more; the hon. Gentleman is right about that issue. We also say that if the existing law is not shown to be working, the Government need to take action to clarify the law.

As I said, we thought at the beginning that this would be a short inquiry, but it has exposed a number of issues in the workplace: widespread discrimination against women; stereotypical views of what women should look like, dress like and behave like; outdated attitudes towards women in the workplace; and the constant belittling of women when they try to challenge those attitudes. The conclusion that I have come to is that we have a long way to go to solve these problems but I hope that the Government will take them seriously, because women in the workplace deserve—everyone in the workplace deserves—better than that stereotyping, better than the pain and inappropriate clothing that they are forced to put up with, and better than the attitudes that women encounter every day.

I think, as a Member of Parliament, that we have undergone a long struggle for women to be accepted in this place, but our life is a bed of roses compared with that of women in low-paid and insecure employment and what they have to put up with every day to keep their jobs. I hope that the Minister sees that this is not a trivial issue but a very serious one that affects women every day at work. The Government must now take it seriously.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am pleased to speak in this debate in support of women across the UK who have been subject to various kinds of discrimination with regard to workplace dress codes. I call on the Government to tighten the rules so that that is no longer prevalent in the workplace.

The debate is happening because of a petition signed by more than 150,000 people in the United Kingdom. That shows the real and serious concern that many people have about the fact that, in 2017, women are still subject to unreasonable footwear requirements at work. In the same week as International Women’s Day, when we are celebrating the success of women across the world, who during the past century have made huge strides in the attempt to secure economic, political and social parity, we must also pay great attention to the fact that there is still some way to go.

As recent studies have shown, women still lag behind men in pay. The median hourly rate of pay is £12.82 for female full-time employees, compared with £14.16 for males. However, as this debate highlights, parity in the workplace does not mean only economic parity. The petition rightly points out that, despite the introduction of equality laws, women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. That manifests itself in various ways, including through requirements to wear high heels in the workplace. I assure the House that in workplaces across the country, women are often instructed to wear a full face of make-up and even told which shade of red to wear on their lips.

In evidence provided to the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee for their joint report, women admitted that they found the dress codes that require them to wear high heels “humiliating and degrading”. Some felt “sexualised” by their employer’s insistence on high heels. That effect on the psychological wellbeing of female workers is deeply worrying.

The evidence is clear. There is no real practical function to the wearing of high heels, and I challenge anyone in the House to provide evidence that wearing high heels in the workplace should be mandatory and forced on women employees. Evidence from the College of Podiatry reveals that there is a strong body of clinical evidence against wearing high heels for prolonged periods. However, in some professions, standing in high heels for the duration of an eight-hour shift is the norm. Wearing heels in that way often causes foot pain, bunions, skin lesions, lower limb pathologies and other related discomfort. In fact, my own daughter suffered a metatarsal fracture, which is more commonly associated with sports injuries, when she was forced to wear high heels in a former retail job. As she had not been on the payroll long enough, she was denied any compensation or sick pay— literally adding insult to injury. Needless to say, she did not return to that type of work, but not everyone has that choice.

In my view, all the evidence that we have heard disqualifies any practical argument for forcing women to wear high heels in the workplace. Dress codes in all workplaces should serve a practical purpose and be neutral, targeting men and women in the same way. That is compatible with what the law states. The Equality Act 2010 is clear in principle, in that it aims to harmonise discrimination law and strengthen the law to promote equality in the UK. Sections 39 and 41 prohibit direct discrimination. As the Government put it to the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee:

“They…specifically state that employers must not discriminate as to the terms of employment, or indeed by subjecting an employee to any detriment at work.”

We are debating this topic today because the law is not working in practice and is particularly disadvantageous to women in the workforce, who often feel vulnerable in calling out these injustices. To be effective, the law must be understood by both employers and employees, and employers must take complaints of such discrimination seriously. If they do not, appropriate punishment should be set out clearly.

Today’s job market is fragile, with record numbers of people on zero-hours contracts. Often, those contracts are found in the retail and hospitality sectors, and there have been many cases of women in particular being sent home because they have not complied with a certain aspect of a dress code such as wearing high heels or putting on the “right” shade of lipstick.

I support the calls for the Government to take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act 2010, as well as to provide clearer guidelines on these issues so that the laws already in existence are properly functional and effective.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I wanted to speak in the debate for three reasons. The first is that I personally have never quite fathomed the fashion for cripplingly high heels. I have only ever owned one pair of really high heels. Bought for a wedding, they were worn once and then consigned to the charity shop. I have always been a fan of the comfy shoe—nothing gladdens my heart more than a sensible shoe in a broad fitting.

The second reason is that I was a workplace trade union rep for Unite the union before I was elected to this place, and I have spent many happy and not so happy hours discussing dress codes with various HR advisers and managers. That is a truly thankless task, and I would advise against it if it can possibly be avoided.

I was one of the people with whom the hon. Lady would have been having such a discussion, although I suspect that it might not have been a thankless task if the discussion had been between us. Did she ever discuss, as part of any of those negotiations, a requirement to wear high heels?

I am happy to say that I did not, because I worked for the NHS and our dress code was very much along health and safety lines and about protecting people at work, rather than forcing them into garments that are unsuitable for the workplace.

The third reason why I wanted to speak in this debate is that I am a feminist and I find the idea of women being forced to wear certain items—any items, but particularly those that are uncomfortable and inhibit our ability to walk properly, stand for long periods of time or even run away—quite abhorrent. I find the idea that an employer might make the wearing of such items a prerequisite for a job even more abhorrent still.

I can remember when the NHS trust that I used to work for produced a 30-page document outlining what staff could and could not wear—from the contents page containing headings such as “acrylic nails”, “make-up”, “hair”, “jewellery”, “tattoos” and “piercings”, to the extremely prescriptive details on each subject that followed. I was interested to hear the flesh-coloured tights dilemma that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) highlighted—I remember the long conversations we had about what exactly was meant by the requirement to wear flesh-coloured tights. Given the diversity of our workforce, what colour of flesh did management have in mind? After much discussion, management finally agreed to drop that requirement.

Piercings and tattoos were another source of much agitation. I worked in a laboratory and recall our laboratory manager, having interviewed for a lab assistant, appointing a young man who turned up for his first day with his face resplendent with various piercings that he had not worn to the interview. I remember the anguished cry of our laboratory manager—“We’ve taken on Metal Mickey!” He appeared to feel that he had been duped in some way. Yet that young man proved to be conscientious and good at his job, and given that his role involved minimal contact with the public, his visible piercings were not really too much of a problem.

Of course, a lot of dress code issues in the NHS are necessary because of health and safety at work and the need to wear personal protective equipment. I certainly do not think there was any emphasis at all on making women conform to some odd standard of stereotypical attractiveness, as the petition concentrates on. However, I mention those details to emphasise that dress codes do not have to be 30-page documents stipulating down to the tiniest detail what can and cannot be worn. I recall the deathless phrase in our code, “Underwear must not be visible”, and wondering whether that also applied to my boss’s string vest, which was always clearly visible through his white shirt, and exactly where people buy such things from.

A good dress code only has to be a few lines long, and my own council, Rochdale Borough Council, has an exemplary policy that is brief but covers all eventualities and health and safety requirements. It simply states:

“First impressions count and there is a general expectation that employees dress appropriate to the nature of their duties and responsibilities. The Council values and welcomes the ethnic diversity of its workforce and therefore expects all employees to recognise and respect this in terms of dress. Where there is a clear business, service or health and safety reason appropriate dress codes may be introduced following consultation to suit the service needs and meet public expectations. Uniforms must be worn where required and provided. Personal Protective Equipment must be worn where it is appropriate to do so or if directed by the manager or Health and Safety Advisor.”

I was interested to hear the hon. Lady read that. There was a part where she said that uniforms must be worn where provided. However, the issue is whether the uniforms required are appropriate; ultimately, the key arbiter of that must be a court, which will establish whether an employer has gone too far. Does she therefore agree that, to reiterate what I said earlier, the key is to ensure that people can access the courts to establish where the boundaries lie and to achieve justice and case law that will apply to future circumstances?

Yes, I agree that every worker should have access to the courts. Unfortunately, the tribunal fees that have been introduced have restricted such access. I think I am right in saying that no employee of Rochdale Borough Council has had to seek that access; I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the uniforms provided by Rochdale Borough Council tend to be practical and appropriate for the job.

A brief dress code such as that is really all that is needed. Any attempt to be prescriptive and go into further detail about particular items of clothing is a waste of everyone’s time and, given the vagaries of fashion, likely to be quickly superseded by some new fad or trend.

I personally think that high heels hobble and restrict women and hamper our ability to move freely, and even to run away if necessary. However, I recognise that some women choose to wear heels of their own volition, and I will not criticise them for that—we should all be free to wear whatever we like. What I cannot tolerate is employers trying to force women into an ideal of what constitutes professionalism or power dressing by insisting that particular items, such as cripplingly high heels, must be worn.

I am reminded of Ginger Rogers’ famous response when she was asked about dancing with Fred Astaire and said, “It’s easy, I just do everything that Fred does,” and then added, “just backwards and in high heels.” That is all these strict dress code stipulations are—an attempt to hobble and restrict women, meaning that we have to perform as well as men, if not better, while being held back by quaint, stereotypical notions of what constitutes femininity and a professional appearance. So I say to women everywhere, “Let’s have no more going backwards in high heels; let’s go forwards, and in sensible shoes.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am pleased to follow such an interesting and thought-provoking contribution from the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). I also commend Nicola Thorp, who brought this issue to all of our attention and wrote the petition. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) spoke passionately and clarified some of the depressing realities of working life for many of the young women that she and her Committee spoke to. Like her, I commend the young women who came forward to give evidence in public. It can be daunting for someone to put their head above the parapet, and in this case doing so attracted comment that would have made it more so.

I followed the case that led to the petition and subsequent Committee inquiry with some interest. As I said, before I came to this place it was my job to write the dress code policy for my organisation and to work with staff and trade unions to arrive at a sensible and agreeable policy. I can recall us having lots of discussion but, I have to say, little disagreement about how things might be expressed. We heard sensible words about people being attired appropriately for the task at hand, and that is a reasonable summary of the position that I would expect most organisations to reach.

We had precious little discussion about shoes and none whatever about some of the other, quite astonishing requirements being placed on women that we have heard about today, such as women being required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to reapply their make-up constantly—as for flesh-coloured tights, I despair! I would be amused by the fact that I personally would fail on every single one of those counts, were not the overall topic and what it says about women in the workplace and wider society so depressingly serious.

I would have remembered had we had any discussion about high heels because, unlike the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, I am quite partial to a pair of high heels, but not at work—they do not really do in the House of Commons where we have to walk so much. I therefore stand here in the Chamber in a pair of boringly sensible boots. They are smart enough and, thankfully, they add a number of extra inches to my height, but I am sure that they would fall foul of the kind of dress codes that we have heard about, because they are simply too sensible.

Interestingly, the only discussion that I can remember about footwear and dress codes was in relation to safety footwear. That was the only area in which we felt it was at all appropriate for us to be specific. For most staff, “smart” was clarity enough, but for those who were likely to be working in environments in which things could be dropped or cause injury, the unbreakable rule was that appropriate safety footwear must be worn. That seems eminently sensible to me and seems to be in line with the century in which we are having this discussion.

I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which I thought would have a view worth considering on this issue, and it did. It says that dress codes are lawful, provided that they are reasonable and have equivalent requirements for both sexes. It suggests key points that employers should consider when implementing or amending a dress code: they should always avoid any form of discrimination in a dress code policy and remember that imposing certain standards of dress for health and safety reasons is acceptable—I would go further and say that it is vital. They should also apply dress codes equally to men and women. The difficulty, of course, arises there, because men and women do not generally wear similar shoes or clothing, and most men do not wear make-up. However, it is surely possible in this day and age for us to agree, for instance, that both sexes need to look smart without going into areas where women are clearly treated less favourably than men. For instance, the requirement to wear make-up would surely amount to discrimination, as would a requirement for someone to wear revealing clothing or to dye their hair blonde. I can also foresee a strand of age discrimination that would quite likely follow some of those extremely unhelpful gender-related suggestions.

Crucially, the CIPD advised that employers should always make sure that they have a sound business reason for imposing personal appearance criteria on staff and that a clear written policy has been implemented and widely communicated. The CIPD concluded that it is important to avoid the pitfall of believing that clients would automatically take offence at an employee’s personal appearance. I do not know about anyone else in the Chamber today, but the sight of a woman in flat shoes does not usually send me reaching for the smelling salts. I imagine that clients coming to meetings will be spectacularly unbothered by the heel height of anyone in attendance, and rather more focused on the business at hand—unless, of course, their meeting is being held in the 1970s.

Safety is clearly the key point; it is vital that everyone is kept safe at work and that all health and safety requirements are met. Nobody should be expected to work in an environment that damages their health—but that is what happens for someone who works in a company where high heels are required. We have heard only too clearly from the hon. Member for Warrington North about the real health impacts—to say nothing of the pain—that these dress codes can cause and, worryingly, about the fact that women were put off applying for jobs because of those criteria.

I have admitted to owning a number of high-heeled shoes—some of them very high—but that is my choice and there is no compulsion on me to wear them to work. If I did, according to research I would be in trouble, because women over 40—sadly that includes me—are particularly affected, because women’s balance is apparently affected by age. Seriously, there are more potential issues of discrimination on the grounds of age and disability.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report was helpful in clarifying that the relationship between the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and workplace dress codes is not as widely understood as it should be, and that the current approach is not working. We welcome the report and its calls for new legislation and new ways of tackling discrimination, and for stopping women being forced to comply with discriminatory dress codes.

I understand that the UK Government have said that the existing law is clear and that the dress code that prompted this petition is unlawful. However, discriminatory dress codes obviously remain widespread, so the existing law is clearly not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. It is wrong for someone to be expected to wear high heels, make-up or revealing outfits if such demands are not placed on both genders. Clearly, that would be undesirable, but such ingrained workplace sexism sadly continues to prevail.

It is clear from the report that many people do not feel able to challenge the dress codes that they are required to follow. I agree with the recommendations that the Government Equalities Office should work with ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive to make sure that detailed guidance can be published to help people to understand both equality and health and safety law and how they apply to workplace dress codes. There is simply insufficient evidence in the public domain about health and safety and the risks and implications, for instance, of wearing high heels. I look forward to those bodies working on that as soon as possible, because this really does matter.

I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government are taking action to ensure women’s equality in the workplace, because that goes right to the heart of this issue. What we have heard today about women being subjected to ridiculous requirements and—far worse— harassment in the workplace is unacceptable. In 2017, equality for women in the workplace should be at the heart of every Government’s agenda. Closing the gender pay gap, dealing with maternity discrimination and considering how all those issues can feed into economic growth are vital, but those things cannot be dealt with alone. Until we can deal with what we have discussed today, we will not make the progress that we should, because that is key to driving forward gender equality in the workplace. I press the Minister to tell us what she can do, what she will do and when we can expect some action.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for the powerful way in which she introduced the debate on behalf not only of the Petitions Committee, but of the more than 150,000 people who signed the petition. I also pay tribute to the incredible lady—Nicola Thorp—who started it.

Nicola’s actions on that day in December 2015, when she was given the choice—I use the word “choice” with the loosest possible meaning—either to return to work with a pair of high heels or to leave work and forfeit a day’s pay, has the potential to change the experiences of women in the workplace. She acted not just for herself, but, as we can see from the subsequent inquiry by the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee, for thousands of women up and down our country.

Given that 150,000 people signed the petition and the more than 700 responses to the inquiry’s web forum, it is clear that Nicola’s experience was not an isolated incident. The inquiry took evidence on the medical effects of the prolonged wearing of high heels, which the College of Podiatry describes as “disabling”. As we heard from a number of hon. Members this afternoon, that includes severe pain, knee, hip and spine problems and stress fractures. It places older women or perhaps those with disabilities—already marginalised groups—at a particular disadvantage and impacts on women’s performance at work.

As reported by many of the respondents to the inquiry, women often find such dress codes humiliating, degrading and demeaning, designed not to guarantee a professional image of the employer but to sexualise women employees. Evidence in the Committee’s report highlights just that, with one respondent saying:

“For me personally, it was a bit dehumanising and humiliating to be made specifically to wear items of uniform that sexualised my appearance or enhanced my sexuality—no aspect of the men’s uniform was designed to enhance their male sexuality.”

Such dress codes are based on the objectification and sexualisation of female employees. They hinge on the requirement for someone else in the workplace to appraise the physical appearance of those staff members. Gender-based dress codes create working environments where women are vulnerable to sexual harassment, not only from their employer, but from customers and clients. Furthermore, any such level of objectification, clearly based on a particular understanding of beauty and gender stereotypes, may have negative implications for women who do not conform to them. As the inquiry heard, there may be homophobic or racist connotations for women employees. In common with the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) but unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), I own a plethora of high-heeled shoes—perhaps more than some would consider necessary—but I choose when I want to wear them, and that is becoming increasingly rare these days, as my age increases.

These stereotypes do not just impact on women currently in employment; they are pernicious, feeding down to the standards that young girls and women believe are expected of them. According to Girlguiding’s “Girls’ Attitudes Survey”, 36% of girls aged seven to 10 say that people make them think that the most important thing about them is how they look, while 47% of girls aged 11 to 21 say that how they look holds them back most of the time. Tellingly, 86% of seven to 10-year-old girls think that girls and boys have the same chance of being successful in their future jobs, but that falls to just 35% when asking 17 to 21-year-olds. Gender-based dress codes are a cause and a consequence of a nasty and corrosive sexism that conveys that women are little more than dolls to be dressed or objects to be presented. The codes feed portrayals of women that make girls believe that their most valuable asset is not what they say or do, or how hard they work or apply themselves, but how they look. I am rarely lost for words, as I am sure many of my hon. Friends here would agree, but having heard about the mandatory make-up requirements in some workplaces, I am at a loss. We cannot overestimate the implications for young girls’ physical and mental health, self-worth and aspirations.

The inquiry made a number of recommendations. In particular, the Select Committee on Women and Equalities and the Petitions Committee focused on women’s ability to challenge such dress codes and made recommendations on the role of tribunals. Unsurprisingly, the sectors recognised as having the most discriminatory dress codes are travel and tourism services and the retail and hospitality industry, which are known for low-paid and insecure working environments in which women are significantly over-represented. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, many women are deterred from applying for certain jobs by such dress codes.

Those deep and corrosive structural barriers are at the core of women’s economic inequality and allow some companies, as evidenced in the Committees’ report, to treat women poorly in the knowledge that they do not have access to recourse. How does the Minister plan to tackle sectors that rely on insecure working practices, and how will she better support employees in those sectors to access recourse?

According to the TUC, since the introduction of employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of people taking a claim against their employer has dropped by 9,000 a month, which has direct implications for women. Between January and March 2014, just 1,222 sex discrimination claims were made to an employment tribunal, compared with 6,017 in the same quarter in 2013. That represents a huge fall of 80%. On 31 January 2017, the Government published their review of employment tribunal fees, admitting that the fall in claims has been significantly greater than was estimated when fees were first introduced.

As the inquiry shows, sometimes the only way that women can enforce their rights at work is through employment tribunals. How on earth can the Government claim to show any commitment to tackling sexist and discriminatory working practices when they have effectively priced women out of their own employment rights? The situation is compounded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s failure to bring test cases in relation to working practices, which comes as no surprise given that the Government have cut its budget to shreds. How will the Government ensure that the EHRC has the necessary budget and resources that it needs to bring test cases to uphold anti-discrimination laws?

Nicola Thorp’s actions and her subsequent petition are a lesson to us all about the importance of hearing directly about women’s experiences. It may never even occur to many in this place that women in the workplace can and regularly do have a markedly different experience from men. Expectations placed on women in the workplace, whether they are written down in a dress code or hinted by a manager, or stare out of an advertisement board or a newspaper, shape the way that women are treated in the workplace. The consequences of those expectations, the humiliation and even, sometimes, the physical pain can and do change how women interact with their work and the world around them.

Ahead of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, every Member of this House should do our utmost to hear directly from women and understand what they experience. When we do hear from women, it is not enough just to recognise their experiences of sexism and discrimination; we must act to tackle it.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing this important debate and for setting out the issues so clearly, and in some cases shockingly, in her opening speech. I congratulate all the other Members who have taken part.

I am grateful to the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee for their report on high heels and workplace dress codes. It is clearly concerning, and highlights both unacceptable behaviour and the persistent challenges faced by some women in the workplace. I am most grateful to Nicola Thorp and other brave whistleblowers like her who have shone a light on this important issue.

Let me be clear: the Government will not tolerate any form of discrimination on any grounds, including gender. As the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) said, it is International Women’s Day this Wednesday, so this debate could not be more timely. The international theme this year is “Be Bold for Change”, and our own national theme is supporting women in the workplace. When it comes to supporting women in the workplace, we mean to be bold, including by enforcing strong laws to tackle sex discrimination at work, including dress codes.

We should renew our efforts to be bold for change. After all, we have had anti-discrimination laws in this area for over 40 years, yet it is a safe bet that this sort of dress code has still existed under the radar, and that female employees have put up with discrimination because “that’s the way things are”. However, whether shod in heels or flats, we are collectively putting our foot down. Attitudes are changing, and this petition has brought that change clearly into the public domain.

However, this is not just about shoes; it is way bigger than that. It is about how people are treated in the workplace, and this debate is specifically about how women are treated in the workplace. We have a higher number of women in work than ever before, but it is essential that they should feel comfortable and confident in their employers’ due regard for their health and wellbeing. They should feel empowered to do their best and be rewarded for their hard work. They should feel confident of their rights and that they can redress a problem where it persists. Employers must meet their legal obligations towards their employees, and we will support them to do so.

We are carefully considering the Committees’ report and recommendations and will be issuing a response later this month. I do not want to pre-empt that response, but the evidence sessions conducted by the Committees were invaluable in setting out the extent of the problem. They highlighted some shocking workplace dress code requirements, such as the requirement to re-apply make-up throughout the day and to dress in a sexualised fashion, supposedly to attract clients and customers. I do not know who should feel most insulted by that: the person being required to re-apply their make-up or the consumers whose intelligence is being insulted by the suggestion that a fresh coat of lipstick will somehow induce them to purchase something.

The report also shows that the problem is compounded by the further issue of health and safety, which many hon. Members have mentioned. If an employer requires staff to wear particular shoes as part of a dress code, they should consider the implications. It is absolutely right that the Committees are shining a spotlight on discriminatory dress code practices. In 2017, such outdated and sexist employment practices should not be part of the workplace.

I am proud that in this country, women have a voice and a way to bring such issues to Parliament. We now have plenty of female parliamentarians—maybe not quite enough yet, but enough to bring this issue to Parliament. However, we must also ensure that women have a choice. Whether they choose to wear high heels or not—we have heard very good cases for and against; personally, at 5 foot 10 inches, I have never really needed a few extra inches—should be up to them, not up to some outdated, dodgy 1970s workplace diktat. I must reiterate that the Government utterly condemn such dress requirements where their effect is discriminatory. We strongly support the existing equality legislation that provides protection to women and indeed men who are treated less favourably because of gender in the workplace, but clearly the legislation must be more widely understood and better enforced.

The Equality Act 2010 clearly prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee or job applicant because of their sex when deciding whom to offer employment or in relation to the terms on which employment is offered. Dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical, but the standards imposed should be equivalent, meaning that where an employer or an agency supplying staff imposes a dress code, then unless similar or equivalent rules are laid down for both male and female employees, that code may be directly discriminatory. For example, a man may be asked to wear a shirt and tie while a woman is not, but she would be expected to wear equivalent smart work wear. A code that results in a degree of discomfort or expense for a female employee that a male colleague would not be expected to endure is likely to be discriminatory. In the case of a requirement for high heels, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) pointed out, a blanket rule for women might also be indirectly discriminatory on grounds of disability—for example, if a female employee has difficulty in walking because of a medical condition but is required to wear heels along with her colleagues.

Dress codes can be a legitimate part of an employer’s terms and conditions of service—we accept the importance that some firms place on presenting a smart, uniform corporate image, particularly where services are offered to the public—but such codes must apply fairly to men and women. I was thinking about whether there are any workplaces in which both men and women are required to wear high heels, but the only one that I could think of was the musical “Kinky Boots”, in which everyone seems to wear high heels at the end. Personally, I fail to see why a high heel should be a byword for smartness.

I hope that this case acts as a reminder to employers of their responsibilities and makes employees of both genders aware of their rights under the 2010 Act. However, to ensure that the message is driven home, particularly to employers, the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission are taking action. The Government are clear that the law to deal with such cases of discrimination is adequate, but we recognise that some employers lack awareness of the law or even choose to flout it. We are therefore developing guidance for employers, working closely with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the EHRC and the Health and Safety Executive, in response to the recommendations in the Committees’ report. I welcome the work that the EHRC has already done to raise awareness of discriminatory code practices on social media; I am also aware of, and welcome, the fact that it is looking more generally at how to sharpen and improve its enforcement work under the 2010 Act.

I commend Nicola Thorp and I encourage other whistleblowers to call out employers on these outdated and potentially unlawful practices. These kinds of headlines do not show anybody in a good light, and people should be calling out the employers concerned. Taking that action is never easy, but it is invaluable in raising the profile of the issue and in encouraging employers to review and, where necessary, revise their current dress code practices—as the employer in this case went on to do.

I would like to use this debate to challenge all employers with dress codes to review them and consider whether they remain relevant and lawful. I urge employers to consult the existing guidance available from EHRC and ACAS on the issue, and our forthcoming guidance, which will be prepared with the Thorp petition and the Women and Equalities Committee’s report in mind. Consulting with employees on any proposed dress code may ensure that the code is acceptable both to the organisation and to its staff. In particular, I expect the sectors highlighted in the report—hotels and tourism, travel and airlines, temporary agencies, corporate services, retail and hospitality—to review their dress codes, if they have not already done so. With that in mind, I have recently written to all the trade bodies that represent those sectors. I have drawn their attention to the report and asked them to impress on their members the importance of treating their employees, both male and female, fairly and decently when setting dress codes. I am already beginning to get responses from the trade bodies, and so far they have been very positive.

The hon. Member for Warrington North mentioned that women are sometimes afraid to take complaints against employers further. It is important to emphasise that the 2010 Act has victimisation protections that can give women the confidence to complain about dress codes that may be unlawful, safe in the knowledge that their employer cannot dismiss them for making a complaint. However, there is room for improvement, especially in employees’ understanding of their rights, and the Government have a role to play in that. We will look at how we can improve awareness and understanding of the protections available and how better to enforce them.

To further our ability to spot and respond to this type of discriminatory practice, the Equality Advisory and Support Service has agreed to refer any reports of dress code issues to the EHRC to consider further action. That will ensure that the situation is investigated, that whistleblowers are supported and that we can assess whether further action is required on the part of the Government or other bodies.

The lack of test cases is nothing to do with EHRC budgets. The EHRC has not historically taken on cases of this sort; it has been concerned with taking on strategic cases, generally those that might extend or expand the law, and a basic dress code would not normally be part of that category. However, the EHRC is now looking at strategic cases, to see whether they can include more basic areas of public or parliamentary concern such as this.

We want the UK to lead the way in gender equality in the workplace to ensure that we are a true meritocracy that harnesses the talents of everyone. Making women wear sexualised clothing is about as far away as it is possible to get from our vision of gender parity in the workplace.

The EHRC budget is a bit of a red herring. The EHRC has and will continue to have sufficient funds to fulfil its functions. Its total budget allocation in 2016-17 is £20.435 million. To put that in perspective, it has four times as many staff as my entire Department, the entire Government Equalities Office. We are confident that it has sufficient money and resources to continue to fulfil its statutory functions.

We are committed to enhancing the role of women and removing barriers to equality, including outdated practices and attitudes, by tackling the gender pay gap, increasing the number of women on boards, increasing support for childcare costs and ensuring that employers are aware of their obligations to pregnant women.

A number of hon. Members raised tribunal fees. We are currently consulting on proposals to extend the support available under the help with fees scheme. Under these proposals, the gross monthly income threshold for a full fee remission would be increased to £1,250 a month—broadly the level of the national wage. If implemented, the proposals will help people on low incomes.

We have made great progress on tackling gender discrimination, but there is still much more to do, and it is the responsibility of all of us. We will continue to work hard to ensure that women are not excluded from or held back in the workplace because of exactly the type of outdated attitudes, practices and discriminatory dress codes that we have heard about today.

I thank all colleagues who have spoken in this debate. Among the parliamentarians here, I see women of different ages, shapes and heights. We have all managed to do our job without anyone telling us how to dress—funnily enough, it does not matter. We need to get that message across to employers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), who has had to leave the debate, spoke about the impact that wearing high heels can have. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) rightly said that the best dress codes are limited in scope and do only what they have to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) pointed out how degrading many women find the requirements imposed on us. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) brought to bear her own experience of working in personnel and set out what needs to be done. As many hon. Members have said, a clear message needs to go out today that employers need to review their practices in this area. I was pleased to hear that the Minister has written to trade bodies to get them to remind employers about their duties under the Equality Act 2010, because too much discrimination still goes on in the workplace.

Anyone who suggests that a woman can only do her job wearing 3 or 4 inch heels does not understand the job and has never spent the day in heels. Anyone who suggests that we choose an airline based on the shade of lipstick worn by the female cabin crew really needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It is outrageous that such things are still going on today. Equality in the workplace should be a given; it should not be something that people constantly have to fight for. It benefits employees, but in the long term it also benefits employers, because it gives them a much more diverse workforce with different skills and attitudes.

I am glad that the Minister has made it clear today that she shares our concern about discriminatory behaviour and that she knows that it is unacceptable. I look forward to the Government’s response to the Committees’ report. In the end, however, women have to be able to enforce their rights; we can get only so far with information and exhortation. At the end of the day, people need to go to a tribunal. It is a long time since I practised law, because I have been here in Parliament for nearly 20 years, but I do not see a difference between what the Minister calls a “strategic” case and a test case. I think they are exactly the same thing and I will be glad to see the Equality and Human Rights Commission taking on some further cases in this area.

I also thank Nicola Thorp, who started this petition. Already, it has achieved a great deal and I hope that we will achieve more in the long term. She put her head above the parapet and endured a lot of abuse on social media for doing so. As I said before, these issues are not trivial; they contribute to a toxic atmosphere in the workplace that demeans women and does not give them equality. I hope that we shall move on from our report to ensure that such equality becomes not just an aspiration but a reality in the workplace for all women, even those who are poorly paid and in insecure jobs.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 129823 relating to high heels and workplace dress codes.

Sitting adjourned.