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Footwear and sexism in the workplace

PwC have been catapulted into the media spotlight as a result of an agency worker speaking out about being told to wear high heels for a receptionist role and being sent home without pay when she refused to do so. However, does this amount to sexual discrimination for the purposes of the Equality Act or is it acceptable practice?

Receptionists and secretaries are often at the front line when dealing with clients. First impressions count and ensuring professional, smart attire is crucial.

For years women have been told when attending for interview that a small heel is more appropriate than turning up in killer stilettos. Let’s face it, falling flat on your face never creates a good impression. However, in Ms Thorp’s case she was told that a heel of between 2 and 4 inches was required and flat shoes were unacceptable and in breach of their corporate dress policy. She argued that her choice of footwear bore no relation to her ability to do the job and when asked whether men were required to comply with similar dress requirements was apparently laughed at and asked to go home.

Requiring different attire between men and women doesn’t fall foul of the sex discrimination provisions providing that both are required to wear items that are considered to be of an equally professional or casual nature, depending on the role. Thus the requirement for men to wear a shirt and tie and women to wear a blouse would be unlikely to fall foul of the Equality Act provisions. Equally had the shoes in question been flip flops or casual in appearance, no one would have batted an eyelid at the decision.

However, there appears to be no legitimate reason why heels were required and smart flat shoes banned. If the arrangements are seen to sexualise one gender over another then the law is likely to have been breached. Although not an issue in the current case, a requirement to wear heels may also result in a greater proportion of older workers or those with disabilities being able to comply and could result in indirect disability and age discrimination arguments.

PwC reacted quickly to the debacle and indicated that their policy did not ban flat shoes and that they were working with the agency who provides their front of house staff to review their guidelines. However, the backlash that has resulted, has called into question the stereotyping of females in the City once again.

PwC are not the only ones to have come under fire as a result of their footwear policy in recent times. Last year an Israeli airline ordered its female flight attendants to wear high heels at all times until passengers had been boarded and seated arguing it was standard industry practice. The Cannes film festival also experienced a backlash as a result of refusing entry to women wearing flat shoes in 2015 to a screening of the Cate Blanchett film, "Carol".

Now is maybe the time to blow the cobwebs off your appearance and uniform policy and check it has moved with the times. Then circulate it to your staff. After all, summer is approaching and as the temperature increases (we can only hope), this is the most likely time for standards of attire to slip.

If you would like to discuss any issues raised in this article, we have specific employment law expertise in advising in this area. For further advice, please contact Angela Gorton.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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