Kudos to the lady with the smart flat heels

Kudos to Nicola Thorp for standing up for herself and against a stupid dress code. Kudos also for inadvertently helping to expose blatant institutional sexism at the heart of 21st Century British Government.

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So this week a joint Parliamentary Committee released a report revealing the troubling experiences of workers affected by discriminatory dress codes.

Triggered by a petition from Nicola Thorp, the report concluded that the Equality Act 2010 is not yet fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination and that there was an urgent need for employer guidance which: ‘At the very least, should address the more controversial dress code requirements which have been brought to light through this inquiry: high heels; make-up; manicures; hair (colour, texture, length and style); hosiery; opacity of workwear; skirt length; and low-fronted or unbuttoned tops.

Embarrassingly for Theresa May, her Government’s evidence to the committee directly contradicted reassurances she gave the house five years ago, when as Women & Equalities Minister, she dismissed concerns over sexist dress codes.

Today I am wearing a silver grey trouser suit and a pair of shoes from LK Bennett. As Secretary of State I have not found that traditional gender-based workplace dress codes have held me back. I indeed believe that they encourage a sense of professionalism in the workplace. Theresa May (2011)

Indeed, embarrassingly for the two female chairs of  the investigation into ‘the troubling experiences of workers affected by discriminatory dress codes’, their report helps to spell out exactly how ignorant and directly or indirectly sexist our current generation of legislators have become.

Typically their investigation into ‘sexist dress codes’ completely ignored the experiences of over 53% of the UK workforce, as did their fairly robust set of recommendations.

This is hardly surprising, given that the investigation was led by the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by the Women and Equalities Minister and supported by the Women and Equalities Office who take a lead on sex equality issues impacting exclusively on 47% of the workforce (and/or transgender people).

This week Nicola Thorp has spoken very eloquently about her experiences and fair play to her making a stand for sensible footwear in the workplace. Fair play also for running rings around Piers Morgan’s half baked arguments on GMB but sadly both he and she missed a crucial point during their debate.

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Nicola Thorp

The medical and social implications of wearing high heel shoes or a necktie in work are no more the same as the medical implications of being born a man or a woman.

And it is not necessarily sex discrimination for a dress code to set out different requirements for men and women as long as they do not require an overall different standard for one sex.

But there are certainly medical and social implications for both examples of uncomfortable dress.

And if a different standard is imposed then this will probably be direct sex discrimination. Indeed if a specific item of clothing imposed on workers can’t meet a ‘reasonableness’ test then at the very least the employer will be guilty of indirect discrimination.

Take the Houses Of Parliament for example, who’s own dress code was recently found to do both….

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Professor Child’s recent Good Parliament Report found that current working practices in the cradle of democracy are somewhat archaic and concluded that it is time for Parliament:  to accept an institutional responsibility to become more representative and inclusive, improve the quality of parliamentary outcomes, and ultimately raise the public’s regard for the House of Commons’.

The Women & Equalities Minister will be well aware of the report because she helped launch it, as will every single Member of the Women & Equalities Committee who jumped at the recommendation about (currently illegal) female quotas for Parliamentary elections (and sanctions for any party which fails to comply).

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So one assumes that at least one of them will have read as far as page 23 and the recommendation to revise their own current dress code.

The report notes that the dress codes in the Chamber, ‘as in wider society, are explicitly gendered and that Male MP’s have a right to be aggrieved that a strict dress code, including a jacket and tie, is imposed on them whilst no similar standard is set for women, who can get away with anything from knee length boots, to denim and t-shirts.

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This is what Parliament’s Dress Code looks like

Fortunately Professor Child’s solution is relatively straightforward, specifically: reframe the convention in a gender neutral way, one that removes the men’s stricter dress code [given that] today ‘business dress’ does not always require of men a jacket and tie.

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Who knows, the Women & Equalities Committee might even get round to following up on that recommendation eventually but it’s unlikely to be July 2017, which is the deadline they set for new guidelines for employers on sexist dress codes affecting female workers.

Ironically our Prime Minister could have saved poor Nicola Thorp a whole lot of bother if only she’d taken the issue more seriously when she was Women & Equalities Minister but because she was specifically asked about male dress codes, she dismissed the question and instead just had a good laugh about her penchant for kitten heels.

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And they keep telling us that ‘Equality’ is good for everyone.

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