British lawmakers say high heel workplace ban is a step too far

The bill was introduced to change what many see as sexist dress codes imposed on professional women in Britain.

Tim Ireland/AP/File
Nicola Thorp poses for a picture outside the Houses of Parliament in London in March. She was told in December 2015 that her shoes were unacceptable for a temporary assignment in London with finance firm PwC.

Calls to introduce a law barring employers from requiring female employees to wear high heels at work were shot down by British Parliament Friday, which found that existing legislation was “adequate” in its scope to curtail workplace sexism.

But while adequate on paper, many MPs agreed that enforcement and understanding of the law currently aren’t enough to protect women from demeaning and uncomfortable dress codes.

MPs debated the issue in March after a petition calling for the law received more than 150,000 signatures. It was started by Nicola Thorp, a London woman who was told she must wear a 2- to 4-inch heel while working as a receptionist for London financial firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and was turned away from her post when she refused to comply on the first day.

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,” the petition reads. “Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.”

The petition spurred debate and an inquiry on gendered dress codes – a practice that has long taken place in other countries around the world. For decades, working women were often barred from wearing dress pants in professional settings, and the practice was not allowed on the US Senate floor until 1993. In some professions, such as flight attendants, women who wear pants still find themselves caught in controversy, while others have received praise for embracing edgy, androgynous looks.

The same debate has taken place around high-heeled shoes. While sometimes uncomfortable and difficult to walk in, heels also have been shown to create long-term foot and leg damage or discomfort. A study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham estimated that there were 123,355 injuries related to high heels between 2002 to 2012 across the United States, about 2.6 percent of which resulted in trips to the emergency room.

Other nations have raised similar health concerns. Russia proposed a law a few years ago seeking to ban high heels in general, citing health concerns. The bill also said canvas sneakers and ballet flats resulted in flat-footed women. 

While high heels have remained a standard choice for professional or formal footwear for decades, many women today opt for flat, but dressy, shoes in the workplace. 

But some fashion doyens insist that for a woman to appear beautiful, her heels must be elevated. At the Cannes Film Festival in France two years ago, women who attempted to step on the red carpet in flats were sent home

When it comes right down to it, women are still not completely free to wear the shoes of their choice.

While Britain already has laws on gender discrimination in the workplace, MPs agreed this week that more must be done to clarify the laws and educate employers on best practices, and released a report with recommendations to employers.

"[The inquiry] has exposed widespread discrimination against women, stereotypical views of what women should look like and dress like and behave like,” Helen Jones, who chairs the Petitions Committee, said in March. "It's shown up out-dated attitudes towards women in the workplace, and it has shown that constantly women are belittled when they try to challenge those attitudes."

But for those who have experienced discriminatory dress codes first hand, the lack of a legal response from Parliament came as a disappointment.

"It shouldn't be down to people like myself," Ms. Thorp told BBC. "The government should take responsibility and put it in legislation. I do think it is a little bit of a cop-out."

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