High heels and workplace dress codes

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Dress codes for women have come under Government scrutiny following a petition signed by more than 150,000 people calling for it to be unlawful for an employer to require a female employee to wear high heels at work.

Whilst a rule that female employees must wear high heels would be extremely vulnerable to challenge as discriminatory on the grounds of sex, the Government nevertheless commissioned a report on the subject by the Women and Equalities Committee. Its report concluded, unsurprisingly, that requiring women to wear heels or certain other dress requirements may present a health and wellbeing issue as well as making some women feel uncomfortable or sexualised. The Committee recommended that more effective remedies should be in place for employers who break the law as well as a detailed awareness and education campaign targeted at employers. Existing ACAS guidance on the topic was criticised as being out of date and unclear.

Amongst the worst offenders were employers in the hospitality, retail, hotel, tourism and travel sectors. The report found that many employees affected were young female workers in insecure positions who already felt vulnerable in the workplace and were less likely to voice concerns. It was also noted that Employment Tribunal fees make bringing a sex discrimination claim unfeasible for most people.

Whilst there have been several cases dealing with dress code in relation to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief there is very little case law on whether a dress code amounts to sex discrimination. This report raises the profile of an issue that affects many female employees. Pending any future revised guidance, it is safe to say that any dress code requiring a woman to wear heels, short skirts, make up etc will be open to challenge under sex discrimination laws as well as having the potential to give the employer some very unwelcome publicity.