High heels and workplace dress codes Contents


The Committee’s inquiry

1.On 24 May 2016, the Petitions Committee considered an e-petition calling on the Government to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. At that stage, the petition had over 138,500 signatures and was waiting for a response from the Government.

2.There had been almost no discussion in Parliament about gender-based workplace dress codes since the new legal framework—the Equality Act 2010—came into force on 1 October 2010. The last time the issue was raised was on 6 September 2011, when the then Minister for Women and Equalities, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, provided a written answer to a Parliamentary Question, stating that she believed “traditional gender-based workplace dress codes [ … ] encourage a sense of professionalism in the workplace”. 1

3.The Committee therefore decided that a detailed investigation of this issue was needed, in order to inform a subsequent debate on the petition.2 We were keen to give the public the chance to share their stories of workplace dress codes, so that MPs could gain a better understanding of workers’ experiences, and to hear from expert witnesses about how well the current law is working.

The petitioner’s story

4.Nicola Thorp arrived to work in December 2015 as a temporary receptionist at PwC’s offices in Embankment, London. She was employed by Portico, an agency which describes itself as a “specialist provider of high quality, tailored front and back of house guest services.”3 On arrival, Ms Thorp was told that the smart, flat shoes she was wearing did not comply with Portico’s dress code, which included a specific requirement to wear shoes with a heel height of between 2 and 4 inches. For its part, PwC has stated that the dress code required by Portico was not a PwC policy.4 Ms Thorp was then given the option to go out to buy a pair of high heels. When she refused, she was sent home without pay.

The petition

5.As a result of her experience, Nicola Thorp decided to start a petition calling for the law to be changed. Her petition reads:

Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work

It’s still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear formal flat shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.

6.The petition was opened on 9 May 2016, and closed on 9 November with 152, 420 signatures. The image below shows a breakdown of signatures by parliamentary constituency.

Breakdown of signatures by parliamentary constituency

7.Speaking to the media after the petition hit the headlines in May 2016, Portico said that Ms Thorp had “signed the appearance guidelines”5 but that it would now review them. Shortly afterwards, Portico announced that it had changed its dress code policy—and had removed the requirement to wear high heels.

The public’s stories

8.From 8 to 15 June 2016, the Committees ran a web forum in which members of the public were invited to share their experiences of workplace dress codes.6 In just one week, we received 730 responses in the web forum. We also worked with Mumsnet, which hosted a thread in which women were invited to share their experiences.7 We are very grateful to everyone who took the time to share their views. These contributions have been invaluable to our inquiry.

The Government’s response

9.The Government provides a response to every petition which reaches 10,000 signatures. The Government Equalities Office responded to this petition on 24 June 2016. Its response in full read as follows:

Company dress codes must be reasonable and must make equivalent requirements for men and women. This is the law and employers must abide by it.

This Government is taking action to remove the barriers to equality for women at work, which is why we are tackling the gender pay gap, increasing the number of women on boards, increasing support for childcare costs and ensuring employers are aware of their obligations to pregnant women.

Employers are entitled to set dress codes for their workforce but the law is clear that these dress codes must be reasonable. That includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law. Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear.

The Government takes this issue very seriously and will continue to work hard to ensure women are not discriminated in the workplace by outdated attitudes and practices.8

10.The Petitions Committee was disappointed with both the quality and timeliness of this response. The Government has agreed to provide responses within 21 days. 9 Given its brevity, the Committee could not understand why this response took 40 days to produce. When the response finally arrived, it failed to address directly the issues raised by the petition. It therefore fell far short of the standards we expect the Government to meet.

11.It was important to this inquiry that we receive a clear and direct statement of the Government’s position. The Chair of the Petitions Committee therefore wrote to the Minister for Women and Equalities on 28 June 2016 to request a response which addressed directly the issue raised by the petition. On 11 July, we received the Government’s fuller answer to these points.10

Our report

12.Our inquiry was prompted by a petition about requirements to wear high heels, but in the course of gathering evidence we have also heard about other kinds of gendered dress codes. We heard from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up. This report considers the evidence we received and makes recommendations to the Government for action.

1 HC Deb, 6 September 2011,col 599W

2 A debate will be scheduled in the 2016/17 parliamentary session. Details, once known, will be published on the inquiry webpage at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/high-heels-workplace-dress-codes-inquiry-16-17/

3 Portico, About Us, accessed July 2016

8 E-petition 129823, Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work

9 Standards for government responses: https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/petitions/Petitions-Chair-leader-of-the-House-letter.pdf

10 Minister for Women and Equalities (WDC0002)

23 January 2017