High heels and workplace dress codes Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Workers’ health, wellbeing and performance

1.The evidence leaves the Committees in no doubt that dress codes which require women to wear high heels for extended periods of time are damaging to their health and wellbeing in both the short and the long term. (Paragraph 23)

2.The College of Podiatry’s evidence that, on average, women report pain after 1 hour, 6 minutes and 48 seconds of wearing ill-fitting high heels—with a fifth of respondents reporting pain after 10 minutes’ wear—puts in context the suffering of women required to wear high heels throughout the working day. There is also evidence that a requirement to wear high heels has a disproportionate effect on women who have a disability and on older women. Employers who require their female employees to wear high heels must be either unaware of the pain and impairment they cause, or simply choosing to ignore it. Either way, they are seriously failing in their duties towards their employees. (Paragraph 31)

3.It is clear from the evidence we have received that certain requirements in dress codes for female workers—for example, requirements to wear make-up, high heels and skirts above the knee—make some workers feel very uncomfortable, even sexualised by their employer. These workers may feel discriminated against and deterred from seeking to progress within their company. In some cases, such requirements in dress codes may also expose workers to unwanted sexual attention from customers and clients or from management. (Paragraph 39)

4.We are also concerned about the extent to which gender-specific dress codes reinforce rigid gender stereotypes which might make workers, especially some LGBT+ workers, feel uncomfortable. (Paragraph 40)

The legal framework

5.The Equality Act is clear in principle in setting out what constitutes discrimination in law. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in some sectors of the economy. Moreover, we have heard evidence that many employers are not taking dress codes into account in their health and safety risk assessments. This means that the law is obviously not working in practice to protect employees from discriminatory practices and unsafe working conditions. (Paragraph 48)

6.Although the Equality Act is clear in principle, we heard a range of evidence which suggests that its application to individual cases is not straightforward. There seems to be considerable uncertainty about whether specific provisions—such as requiring female employees to wear make-up—are permissible or not. (Paragraph 55)

7.In particular, the need to prove that a particular requirement constitutes “less favourable” treatment seems to be a barrier to claims in cases where the dress code requires workers to dress in a way which many people in society already adopt by choice. Make-up is perhaps the clearest example of this. We heard that it would be difficult for a claimant to prove that a dress code requiring female employees to wear make-up constitutes less favourable treatment, even though some workers might feel humiliated and degraded by the requirements of such a code. (Paragraph 56)

8.The Government Equalities Office should work with the Ministry of Justice to examine what proportion of cases relating to discrimination in the workplace failed because the claimant could not establish less favourable treatment. They should also seek to discover how many people are deterred from bringing a case because they feel that the law is unclear. If this represents a significant proportion of cases, then the Government should consider adapting the less favourable treatment test to place greater weight on the subjective element—the claimant’s feeling of being discriminated against—and issuing guidance to this effect. (Paragraph 57)

9.The Government should also examine what proportion of such cases failed because the employer was found to be pursuing a legitimate aim. If this represents a significant proportion of cases, then the Government should consider changing the law to define what legitimate aims can be. We would propose the following legitimate aims:

(1)health and safety;

(2)to establish a truly necessary public image, for example, the judiciary;

(3)to project a smart and uniform image; and

(4)to restrict dresses or insignia which may cause offence. (Paragraph 58)

How well does the law work in practice?

10.It is clear that many employees do not feel able to challenge the dress codes they are required to follow, even when they suspect that they may be unlawful. We therefore recommend that the Government develop an awareness campaign to help workers to understand how they can make formal complaints and bring claims if they believe that they are subject to discriminatory treatment at work, including potentially discriminatory dress codes. Advice should be provided about:

The awareness campaign should cover all sectors but be targeted particularly at the following industries:

11.In view of the evidence we have received about the particular impacts of discriminatory dress codes on younger workers, this awareness campaign should also be extended to include all sixth form and further and higher education institutions in England. (Paragraph 65)

12.The Government Equalities Office does not appear to have a grasp of whether employers understand and comply with anti-discrimination legislation when they are implementing dress codes. The evidence we received indicates that employers do not properly understand how the Equality Act applies in practice, particularly in areas where there is little case law to guide them. (Paragraph 71)

13.It is clear to us that, in many cases, employers who impose dress codes on their workers simply are not asking themselves what legal obligations they might have to protect their employees’ health and wellbeing and to avoid discrimination against their employees, because they are not recognising the potential harm which their dress codes might cause. (Paragraph 72)

14.The Government Equalities Office should work with Acas and the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that detailed guidance for employers is published, to help them to understand how discrimination law and health and safety law apply to workplace dress codes. Given the importance of this issue for millions of workers, we recommend that the Minister for Women and Equalities ensure that this updated guidance is published by July 2017. (Paragraph 73)

15.At the very least, this guidance should address the more controversial dress code requirements which have been brought to light through this inquiry: high heels and footwear; make-up; manicures; hair (colour, texture, length and style); hosiery; opacity of workwear; skirt length; and low-fronted or unbuttoned tops.(Paragraph 74)

Enforcing the law

16.It is clear that there are not currently enough disincentives to prevent employers breaching the law. While negative publicity will be a disincentive for many employers, this cannot and should not be relied on to prevent unlawful discrimination. (Paragraph 84)

17.The Government must substantially increase the financial penalties for employers found by employment tribunals to have breached the law. Penalties should be set at such a level as to ensure that employees are not deterred from bringing claims, and to deter employers from breaching the legislation. (Paragraph 85)

18.The Government should also make it quicker and easier for the claimant to resolve a legal problem with their dress code by allowing employment tribunals to award injunctions in these types of cases. (Paragraph 86)

19.The Equality Act 2010 was intentionally drafted in a way which relies on test cases being brought to build up a body of antidiscrimination case law. Far fewer of these cases are being brought, however, following the introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2013. We heard that reductions in funding for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have also had an impact, reducing the opportunities for individuals, often in insecure employment, to obtain support when bringing such a claim. This drop in employment tribunal claims poses an obvious threat to the effectiveness of antidiscrimination law. It is extremely important that a mechanism exists whereby test cases can be brought where employment tribunals may be otherwise unaffordable or unattractive for potential claimants. (Paragraph 91)

20.The Government must ensure that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is able to play an increased role in providing support and funding for antidiscrimination test cases and appeals brought before employment tribunals and courts. The Women and Equalities Committee will want to maintain a watching brief in this area as part of its ongoing scrutiny of the work of the EHRC. (Paragraph 92)


21.We conclude by reiterating our concern for the workers affected by discriminatory dress codes, many of whom are young women in insecure jobs who already feel vulnerable in the workplace. The Government has said that the dress code imposed on Nicola Thorp was unlawful—but requirements to wear high heels remain widespread. It is clear that the Equality Act 2010 is not yet fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination. (Paragraph 93)

22.The Government has said that it expects employers to inform themselves about their legal obligations and comply with the law. This is not enough. We have heard evidence that, in certain sectors, breaches of the law are commonplace. Pushing responsibility onto employers to find out their legal obligations and comply is a strategy which is not working. The Government needs to do more and must do it quickly. (Paragraph 94)

23.We recommend three main solutions to this problem: for the Government to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to amend it, if necessary, to make it more effective; more effective remedies for employment tribunals to award against employers who breach the law; and detailed guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers, workers and students.(Paragraph 95)

24.By raising this issue in Parliament, this petition has already done a great deal to raise awareness of the law among employees and employers alike. It now falls to the Government to continue the work that the petitioners have started.(Paragraph 96)

23 January 2017