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MPs call for stronger laws on sexist dress codes

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Two government committees have concluded it needs to review and amend the law around dress codes

The government should review and amend laws around company dress codes to prevent organisations from insisting on "discriminatory" work attire, according to a cross-party group of MPs.

The House of Commons Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee were responding to a petition that was handed to the government in May 2016 demanding that companies be banned from making employees wear high heels at work. It contained more than 138,500 signatures.

The petition was started by Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from her temporary receptionist job for wearing flat shoes rather than heels in December 2015.

The government originally responded to Thorp by stating that while employers are entitled to set dress codes, the law is clear that these must be reasonable and that employers should not discriminate against women by requiring them to wear certain attire.

However, the report states the government's response "fell short", adding: "It is clear that the Equality Act 2010 is not yet fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination".

"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, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits, and constantly reapply make-up," the report says.

It concludes that it is "not enough" for the government to push responsibility to understand the legal requirements around dress codes onto employers. It recommends the government review this area of law and potentially amend it.

It also suggests the introduction of "more effective remedies for employment tribunals to award against employers who breach the law" and calls for clearer guidance for employers and employees.

In particular the report calls on organisations to consider the health and wellbeing risks posed by high heels. The College of Podiatry advised the panel that people who wore high heels for long periods had reduced balance, reduced ankle flexion and weaker muscle power in the calf.

The report also cited evidence that high heels impair the wearer’s ability to perform at work. They can leave the individual in pain, may be ill-suited to work duties, and may alter breathing patterns and concentration, thus "reducing executive presence."

Group operations director for employment law consultancy ELAS, Danny Clarke, agreed that health and safety guidelines regarding high heels and the potential long-term damage caused by wearing them on a regular basis, might need looking at.

"Ultimately footwear needs to be sensible and suitable for work activities and the working environment,” he said. “Certain environments such as factories, warehouses or transportation typically require the wearing of closed toe or steel-capped shoes. High heels are normally deemed necessary as part of a corporate dress policy but with research highlighting the risks of long-term musculoskeletal damage as a result of wearing them, it may be time for employers to review these strict dress codes.

“Taking into account employers' duty of care to protect their employees' health in the workplace, I would suggest that they consider reviewing these dress codes and determining whether the requirement to wear high heels is necessary. If employees spend the majority of the day on their feet, are required to carry heavy or awkward loads, or walk any kind of distance then we would recommend this be taken into account."