As MPs call for the government to enforce the law to ban sexist dress codes at work that discriminate against women, Hannah Banks-Walker looks at the reality of sexism in the workplace...
Last year, actor Nicola Thorp sparked a national debate when she decided to tweet about her experience at a temp job in 2015, where she was sent home for refusing to wear heels. Nicola had signed up to employment agency Portico, through which she had obtained work at the accountancy firm PwC.
“It was my first day on the job and they said: ‘Go out and buy a pair of heels or we’ll send you home’,” Nicola said at the time. “I was with a male colleague and I pointed out that he was wearing flat shoes. I told them that I thought I was being treated differently because I’m a woman. They dismissed my comments and I felt humiliated.”
Since then, not only has Portico changed its dress code for female employees, MPs are now also calling for a review of current equality laws based on the findings of a parliamentary report. The report, from parliamentary committees for Petitions and for Women and Equalities, includes a wealth of evidence of sexist dress codes issued to female employees regarding their appearance and dress, which were not issued to their male colleagues.
The original Portico dress code for women, for example, specified the following, according to BBC News:
- Reapplication of make-up and specifics on lipstick, blusher, mascara, eye-shadow and base
- Nail varnish from a specific colour palette
- The thickness of tights
- No visible roots on dyed hair
Nicola appeared on Good Morning Britain earlier today, to debate the issue with everyone’s favourite feminist, Piers Morgan, who naturally didn’t see the problem with women being asked to wear lipstick and heels to carry out certain jobs. “If I started coming in to work in high heels,” explained Morgan, “somebody would say to me ‘Piers, I have a bit of a problem… can you stop wearing the heels?’ and that would be reverse sexism.”
“It would be reverse sexism,” replied Nicola. “But unfortunately we [women] are, as we always have been, the ones who are disadvantaged.”
What Piers was also forgetting is that men aren’t judged on their appearance in the same way as women. Yes, many men are required to wear a suit and tie as part of their job but women are also required to dress smartly. Why should looking professional have to involve excess make up and heels? Why should women have to conform to an ‘attractive’ ideal when men are simply expected to be smart?
As someone who works in fashion, I’m lucky enough to say that I don’t face such issues on a daily basis as my office has a very liberal dress code. But a quick survey of colleagues and friends suggests that unfortunately, Nicola’s experience is pretty common. From male employees witnessing outright abuse of their female colleagues relating to their appearance to some of my female friends simply feeling frustrated at being reduced to their clothing, here are just a few stories to prove just how common this problem is…
Chloe, Look’s Deputy Beauty Editor:
“My friend works for a recruitment company and her (female) boss told her that she had to straighten her hair for work every day (she naturally has really curly, gorge blonde hair – think Carrie Bradshaw) and wear more makeup. She’s really naturally gorgeous and normally only weara mascara but was told she had to be more ‘glamorous’.”
Sarah Harrison, Look’s Senior Fashion Assistant:
“One of my friends who works at a Pharmaceutical company was told that she doesn’t dress smartly enough for work because she doesn’t wear heels. She was even given vouchers from her boss to buy new workwear options.”
Steven, PR Manager:
“At my last PR agency if you were not ‘client facing’ you could not go into the meeting. One friend had lip fillers before a client meeting and was immediately told not to come as her lips looked too swollen and bruised. She was also told she looked like a stripper at another client event. It was at a corporate event and she was pulled aside and told ‘wow you look like a stripper’ by our senior manager at the time…”
Laura, HR Officer:
“I used to work in HR at a private healthcare company and they sent two women (who never really wore make up and heels) on a course about ‘power dressing’. They reported back to me that on the course, they were told they should ALWAYS wear make up. It was ridiculous.”
Charlotte, PR Manager:
” I once had to train a male member of staff and afterwards he made comments to a colleague about the dress I was wearing. It was complimentary but still made me feel a bit uncomfortable.”
“As a teacher, I often deliver assemblies and staff training events and the majority of comments I receive afterwards are about my clothes or the way I’m dressed. Obviously it’s always nice to be complimented, but I sometimes get annoyed that male colleagues are only judged on what they’re saying, rather than what they look like when they’re saying it.”
Lily, PR Manager:
“I once worked in a coffee shop that was so sexist, they literally threw people’s CVs in the bin if they didn’t think they were good looking enough. They did it publicly, too, in front of the rest of the staff.”
Giselle, Look’s Features Editor:
“I was working for a retail agency, where you’re hired to work in high end shops. The enforced dress code was red lipstick, pearls (!) and a black suit. I remember not being able to afford a matching suit, instead wearing black trousers and a black blazer and being told it ‘really wasn’t good enough’. A lot of the time I felt like a Stepford wife, or some sort of porcelain doll, painted up for shoppers to gawp at. Mostly I just felt so far from myself that putting on the full outfit was enough to kick-start a very black mood. Needless to say when I quit that job, I didn’t wear red lipstick for a long time.”-