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Hundreds of workers facing dress code discrimination, say MPs

Mandatory dress codes that require women to wear high heeled shoes at work can cause disabling pain, impair their performance and make them feel sexualised, according to a new report released today (25 January).

High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes was published by two UK parliamentary groups, the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee, and claims that the extreme pain women suffer from wearing high heels affects their concentration and ability to focus. 

The joint report says that painful high heels can cause the wearer to tighten their abdominal muscles and breathe more shallowly and quickly. Breathing in this way can send the body into “fight or flight” mode, which diverts blood to the legs and arms, away from the brain. 

It cites research from the College of Podiatry, which studied the length of time women can endure high heeled shoes without experiencing discomfort. It found that, on average, their feet would hurt after nearly one hour and seven minutes, however a fifth said their feet felt sore after just 10 minutes. 

The report comes after accountancy firm PwC sent home receptionist Nicola Thorp in December 2015 when she did not comply with the rules of her employment agency, Portico, that required her to wear high heeled shoes. Her parliamentary petition, Make it Illegal for a Company to Require Women to Wear High Heels at Work, gathered 152,420 signatures.

“The petition was started because of an individual’s experience, but it has become clear in the course of our inquiry that this was not an isolated incident,” the MPs said. “We heard from hundreds of women who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace.”

The committees found that some employers demanded female staff wear high heels during pregnancy, while other women said long periods of wearing such footwear meant they needed corrective surgery which left them out of work for extended periods.  

Numerous health problems have been linked to wearing high heels for extended periods, including knee, hip and spine issues due to a change in gait; stress fractures in foot bones from sustained body weight on the ball of the foot; ankle sprains and fractures; bunions; and blisters and skin lesions.

Wearing shoes of this kind can reduce balance (especially in workers over 40) and ankle flexion, and weaken muscle power in the calf, warned the College of Podiatry.

Azmat Mohammed, director general of the Institute of Recruiters, is quoted in the report as saying: “Employers are legally obliged to do health and safety assessments anyway, but it doesn’t really go into that much detail in terms of shoes and footwear.”

Scarlet Harris, women’s equality officer at TUC, added: “There is a lot of focus on the safety aspect in health and safety legislation. There is a lot of legislation around personal protective clothing, for example, and shoes that you must wear, like steel-capped toes, where you are protecting your feet. There is very little about the health and wellbeing side, which should actually be part of that legislation – it is part of the legislation but there is less focus on it.”

The two committees also received complaints from women who said they felt “humiliated”, “degraded” and “sexualised” by their employer’s insistence on high heels.  

The MPs concluded that the Equality Act 2010 is failing to protect workers from discrimination. They have called on the government to allow employment tribunals to award larger financial penalties and, if necessary, to review the law and make it more effective.

“The Equality Act is clear in principle in setting out what constitutes discrimination in law. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in some sectors of the economy. Moreover, we have heard evidence that many employers are not taking dress codes into account in their health and safety risk assessments. This means that the law is obviously not working in practice to protect employees from discriminatory practices and unsafe working conditions,” they said.

“The government has said that it expects employers to inform themselves about their legal obligations and comply with the law. This is not enough. We have heard evidence that, in certain sectors, breaches of the law are commonplace. Pushing responsibility onto employers to find out their legal obligations and comply is a strategy which is not working. The government needs to do more and must do it quickly.

“We recommend that the government substantially increase the penalties available to employment tribunals to award against employers, including the financial penalties. At present, such penalties are not sufficient deterrent to breaking the law.”

Commenting on the report, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Far too many employers are still stuck in the past when it comes to dress codes. It is unacceptable that in 2017 bosses are still forcing women to wear painful, inappropriate shoes. Wearing high heels on a regular basis can cause foot, knee and back problems. High heels … should be a choice, not a condition of the job.”


Keeley Downey is acting deputy editor of IOSH Magazine. She is a former editor of Biofuels International, Bioenergy Insight and Tank Cleaning Magazine

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  • Surely, having recognised the

    Permalink Submitted by Hugh McGinty on 1 February 2017 - 07:10 pm

    Surely, having recognised the dangers of wearing high heels for even a short period, it is not enough to make their wearing a choice, should they not be banned? As we all know, the first rule, in either the Hierarchy of risk assessment or the Principles of risk control, is to eliminate the risk, the use of any item which imports risk yet is not a requirement of the task/job/ process should simply be removed.

    And before anyone jumps off the personal rights springboard, try replacing the words 'high heels' in the above report with 'roller skates'. If someone was to come to your office wearing roller skates (because it's a personal choice) would you allow it?

  • Is there any link between

    Permalink Submitted by Alan on 4 August 2017 - 09:18 pm

    Is there any link between shoe styles e.g. heels and risk of a slip, trip fall event? Is there a definition of a sensible shoe? Do any employers mandate sensible shoes in low risk environments?

  • There is a focus on wearing

    Permalink Submitted by Carl Mannion on 15 September 2017 - 03:32 pm

    There is a focus on wearing of high heeled shoes here, which is completely understandable. Some years ago, I worked for an organisation that insisted on compulsory tie wearing for men. Many of the women in the office wore low cut tops (still suitable for business) due to the extreme heat and lack of air conditioning or ventilation in the office. Men on the other hand, were allowed to remove their suit jacket, but the tie had to remain on. Surely this unhealthy practice has merit to be discussed also?


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