The UK has one of the most developed entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world but it seems that it’s still struggling when it comes to the tricky business of office dress codes. According to an official inquiry published in January, many British companies have dress codes that could be seen as sexist. However, the government has now decided not to introduce new legislation that would make it illegal for employers to force female staff to wear things like high heels.
The row began last year when Nicola Thorpe was sent home on her first day at a staffing agency after refusing to wear high heels. She responded by starting a petition calling for the government to force companies to add more protection against sexist dress codes. After 152,420 people signed it, the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee launched an official inquiry. They released their findings in January, unveiling a slew of cases where women had been required to wear short dresses, put on high heels, unbutton blouses or wear makeup. Additionally, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), the professional body for management and leadership, published a report in January that revealed that four in five mangers have witnessed gender discrimination in the workplace.
However, the government has now said that it will not introduce additional protective legislation. While the Equalities Office stressed that the government “takes this issue very seriously”, it added that the Equality Act 2010 already offers sufficient protection for women. The government said: “We are clear that a dress code that makes significantly more demands of female employees than of their male colleagues will be unlawful under this provision.” Responding to recommendations that it should introduce an awareness campaign, the Equalities Office also announced that it will publish a guide for dress codes in the workplace this summer.
Thorpe was disappointed with the answer. “It’s a shame they won’t change legislation,” she told the Press Association. “I do think it is a little bit of a cop-out.” Thorpe added that she didn’t agree that the current legislation offers enough protection as it allows employers “to distinguish between a male and female dress code as long as they are not deemed to be treating one sex more or less favourably.” She continued: “Unfortunately, because of intrinsic sexism and the way in which business works in the UK, when employers are allowed the freedom to decide what is fair and unfair it tends to be women that lose out.”
Commenting on the government’s response, Frances O’Grady, general secretary at TUC, the trade union, welcomed the new guidelines but said that they “won’t be enough if working people can’t afford to take sexist bosses to a tribunal.” To boost the protection of workers, she encouraged the government to “scrap employment tribunal fees” and make it affordable for people “to put a stop to sexist dress codes in practice, as well as in legislation.”
The government may not have introduced new legislation but let’s hope that the upcoming guidelines will help boost the awareness of what employers can tell employees to wear.