High Heels in the Workplace - A Deeper Concern?

15/06/2016 17:25 | Updated 15 June 2016

The recent news story of a female employee sent home from work for her refusal to wear heels for a nine-hour shift really struck a chord with me, as I'm sure it did for many female professionals. To hear that this archaic attitude is still acceptable in many industries, particularly those located in international business hubs such as London, is concerning.

To update those unaware of the story, after telling her manager of her reluctance to wear uncomfortable shoes throughout her work day, 27-year-old corporate receptionist Nicola Thorp was ordered to go home without pay or to go out and purchase heels that were between two and four inches high. She refused to purchase heels, and alleges that her employer, Portico - the company that runs PwC's reception at its Central London office - followed through with its threat and sent her home.

Is treatment such as this to be expected for women, even in 2016? And if it is, is this really fair?

According to UK law, employers can dismiss members of staff who fail to live up to 'reasonable' dress code demands, on the condition they are given enough time to purchase the correct shoes and clothes. While different dress codes can be prescribed for men and women, as long as they are of an equivalent level of smartness, the question lies in whether requesting that women wear heels is based on anything but the need to be perceived 'attractive' at all times.

Speaking to the BBC, Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said a dress code demanding women wear high heels "reeks of sexism", claiming the footwear "should be a choice, not a requirement". But why do some organisations still hold the belief that women need to look a certain way in the workplace, and is this leading to women feeling as though they cannot progress in their careers to the level they aspire to?

Research has long-since pointed to a disparity between the way women perceive their career progression compared to their male counterparts. A survey carried out by Sellick Partnership in early 2016 pointed to a widespread lack of confidence among women in regards to actively pursuing a promotion, regardless of their experience and skillset. Of those surveyed, 34 per cent of women had actively pursued a promotion throughout their career, compared with 51 per cent of men. Despite this, the same number of people were successful in gaining a promotion (76 per cent), regardless of gender.

For many years, women have struggled to find a balance between family life and work. Encouragingly, the increase of flexible and remote working opportunities is helping to alleviate this pressure, and encouraging women to stay in employment for longer. However, the case of Ms. Thorp has reinforced the concern that attitudes to women in the workplace are often still outdated.

So, what can be done?

While the introduction of quotas to promote equality in the number of men and women hired with certain sectors has seen some success, the fact that such measures are even needed simply demonstrates the severity of the situation at hand.

Essentially, the issue lies in the fact that women are still being treated differently from their male counterparts because of their gender, whether it be through a dress code, or a general attitude, and this shows that there is still an incredibly long way to go until we can be satisfied that many industries promote true gender equality.

Organisations should be striving to make themselves attractive to prospective female employees by ridding themselves of outdated policies and bringing themselves well into the 21st century. The danger of not responding to modern workplace demands and demonstrating equal standards for all is that companies will lose skilled, experienced and talented professionals as women leave their workforce, and don't return.