Plain English Guide to British Employment Law
Government rejects calls to ban “sexist” dress codes
The government has rejected calls to change workplace laws on dress codes, in its response to an inquiry. The government reached the conclusion that current regulations are “adequate” – which means that employers can continue to make workers adhere to strict (and sometimes arguably sexist) dress codes.
The inquiry, undertaken by Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee, resulted from a petition instigated by Nicola Thorp, after she had been sent home for not wearing 2-4 inch heels. Her online petition gained 152,400 signatures and encouraged others to voice their experiences.
As part of the inquiry, numerous employees stepped forward to give their accounts of gender discrimination within the workplace. Amongst its evidence was that of a black female employee who was allegedly told by an employment agency – which supplies temporary workers to Harrods – to chemically straighten her hair.
Earlier in the year, a Westminster Hall debate heard claims of women being told to wear lipstick and unbutton blouses to please male customers, with women facing the prospect of dismissal if they complained about sexist policies. Aside from sexism, health and safety of women in the workplace was also raised; a Labour MP explained how her daughter was left with a “fractured foot” because she was obliged to wear high heels as part of her uniform at a retail store.
Maria Miller, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, believes that the current workplace legislation is “not sufficient to achieve equality in practise” – but the government clearly disagrees. Nevertheless, new guidelines on dress code in the workplace are planned by the Government Equalities Office and it has also called on all employers to review company dress codes and “consider whether they remain relevant and lawful.”
These developments leave unresolved questions about the objectification and sexualisation of the female form in the workplace, and the wider implications of a patriarchal society where a woman’s worth is measured by her appearance rather than her capability.