London woman, fired for not wearing high heels, takes her case to Parliament

A 27-year-old woman who was turned away from her first day at a temp job because she refused to wear high heels, has petitioned the British Parliament to make it illegal to force women to wear them.

Bullit Marquez/AP
Male students and soldiers wear high-heeled shoes to pay tribute to women on the eve of International Women's Day 2016 in Quezon city, Philippines. In London, a woman has has petitioned the British Parliament to make it illegal to force women to wear high heels at work.

A petition asking the British Parliament to make it illegal for companies to require women to wear high heels at work has generated more than 110,000 signatures in a matter of days.

It was launched by 27-year-old Nicola Thorp, an actress who was laughed out of a job back in December for refusing to wear high heels on her first day of a temporary gig at London financial firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).  

"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," Ms. Thorp points out in her petition.

Thorp secured the job through London staffing agency Portico. It required her to escort clients from the front desk of PwC's office to meeting rooms for 9 hours, a task which she appropriately prepared to manage in her own black flats and the dress and jacket uniform that was provided for her when she got to work.

But her manager on site told her the dress code for the receptionist job required Thorp to wear 2- to 4-inch heels, and that she was welcome to go out and buy a pair with her own money if she wished to continue the job, Thorp said.

"I refused on principle," Thorp told the BBC. "I said, 'I don't see why what I'm wearing now is going to affect my job in any way.' "

When she asked why a male receptionist wasn't held to the same standards, her manager laughed.

"Which is understandable, but I don't understand why it was so funny to expect him to wear heels," while the expectations of her were completely serious, Thorp said.

On Wednesday, as Thorp's case was generating a flurry of media attention, Portico managing director Simon Pratt said the firm has changed its dress-code policy.

"We are therefore making it very clear that with immediate effect, all our female colleagues can wear plain flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer," said Mr. Pratt, according to the BBC.

PwC told The Guardian that it had only learned about the December incident on May 10, and that the dress code in question is not a PwC policy.

Though British employers have the right to impose a formal dress code for women, and a separate one for men, and Thorp signed a contract agreeing to Portico's dress policies, if a woman is forced to wear something uncomfortable, or that inhibits her ability to carry out her duties, that could be legally problematic, employment lawyer Rebecca Tuck told the Evening Standard.  

Wearing heels is unbearable for many women, and sometimes even harmful.

As The Washington Post reports:

Research into the health impacts of high heels also suggest that mandatory, all-day stilettos might be a bad idea.... University of Alabama at Birmingham scientists estimated that there were 123,355 injuries related to high heels between 2002 to 2012 in the U.S., with about 2.6 percent being treated in emergency rooms.

Thorp said that she was anxious about a possible backlash if she spoke out about the incident, but ultimately felt that she had to after sharing her experience with friends and on Facebook and learning that other women have been in similar situations. 

"Twenty years ago women weren't allowed to wear trousers in the role I'm doing now," she told BBC. "It's only because some women spoke out about that  … that it changed," she said.

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