Employers regularly tell women to put on more makeup, wear high heels and short skirts, new research has found.
Large numbers of women feel their employer has unfairly criticised their appearance in the workplace, with nearly one in five (19%) saying they felt more attention was paid to their appearance by their bosses than to their male peers.
Shockingly, nearly one in 10 women (7%) have been told bosses preferred them to wear high heels while in the office or with clients, because it made them “more appealing”.
Many women revealed they had been told to dress more provocatively and to be “sexier”, with 86% of women who’d received these comments saying they feared their career might suffer if they didn’t comply.
Almost a third (28%) of women said they were advised that changing their appearance would be “better for business”, while another third were told that clients expected a certain style of dress.
The new study was commissioned by employment law experts Slater and Gordon, who surveyed 2,000 employees following a rise in the number of clients referencing comments made by their employers about their appearance.
Men were also aware of the disparity, with almost half (48%) saying they felt that their dress code was more clearly defined and colleagues were far less likely to comment about their appearance than that of their female colleagues.
Josephine Van Lierop, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said: “The findings of this survey are very disappointing but not surprising. There are still far too many employers who think it is acceptable to make disparaging remarks or comments about a woman’s appearance. This sort of sexism is all too prevalent in the workplace – particularly in certain sectors such as financial services, hospitality and The City.
“The current position on dress codes under UK employment law is relatively clear: an employer is allowed to impose a dress code on its employees. But usually this will be put in place for health and safety reasons, or to promote a particular image, for example, of smartness and efficiency.
“A dress code must not be discriminatory on protected grounds such as gender or religious belief, and disabled employees have the right to have adjustments made to alleviate disadvantage.”
Scrutiny about their appearance at work frequently left some women feeling “humiliated”, according to the survey, with nearly one in 10 (8%) women being told to wear more makeup by their boss so they “looked prettier”. Almost one in 10 (8%) said they’d been given a dressing down about their appearance in front of colleagues.
A total of 12% of women admitted they felt belittled, with 34% confessing comments about their appearance had been made in public or in front of more junior colleagues.
However, men’s experience was significantly different. Over half of men (54%) said they never ever received comments about their appearance and were only occasionally being told to dress smarter by their more senior colleagues (3%).
Josephine Van Lierop added: “Under current UK employment law employers cannot treat one person less favourably because of their gender but there is no legislation to prevent employers from treating men and women differently in relation to dress code. “Employers will argue that men and women must be dressed smartly or well-groomed for a person of their gender.
“However, in 2016 there is absolutely no expectation that women in business should wear makeup or high heels in order to be smartly dressed. Imposing this expectation on women only is arguably unlawful sex discrimination.”