Worried about what to wear in the workplace? You’re not alone.
A recent survey of from vouchercodespro.co.uk found that a quarter of female respondents had been criticised for their appearance by management, while only 9% of men had received similar complaints. More shockingly, one-third of those women who were told off heard that their appearance was ‘a distraction’ to colleagues.
The primary reasons for these complaints included wearing too much makeup (46%), wearing a skirt that is too short (35%), wearing a top that was too revealing (30%) and being ‘over the top’, or flamboyant. By contrast, men received complaints over being unshaven (56%) and not wearing correct footwear (34%).
You might remember the recent case of receptionist Nicola Thorp, who was sent home without pay after refusing to wear high heels while working at PwC, a multinational professional services firm. Thorp then created a headline-grabbing petition against dress codes which require women to high heels, which gained 152,000 signatures.
A subsequent inquiry from MPs on the issue heard from women who were forced to dye their hair blonde, constantly reapply their makeup and wear revealing clothing, due to inappropriate work dress codes.
Unfortunately, the government has so far failed to tackle this issue with any further legislation, instead opting to do more to raise awareness of employee rights and employer’s obligations.
This is because it regards the current law which exists as ‘proportionate and fit for purpose’.
So what does the law say?
While employers are free to have a dress code which requires a reasonable standard of dress and appearance, it must not discriminate against protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act of 2010: age; disability; gender reassignment; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, the Commons inquiry revealed that many employers were either unaware of what this legislation actually means, or were simply flouting it. With so many stories of women being made to climb ladders, lift heavy luggage and walk for long periods in high heels, it’s clear that dress codes are being seriously misused in a number of major industries.
The government is right to launch a campaign about employee rights and dress codes, but as much attention as possible should be drawn to the potential penalties for employers who flout rules, such as the maximum fine of £30,000.
Perhaps we should also be having a more open conversation in the business community about what constitutes professional dress. Of course there are many advantages to having a sharp dress code – it can create pride among employees, and even give them a competitive edge when making a sales pitch.
But there also more smart alternatives to traditional formal dress than ever, so why should professional women be forced to follow the 1950s?