Keeping Up Appearances

A parliamentary report has concluded that sexist dress codes are still prevalent within the workplace and has called for a review of the Equality Act 2010, which governs discrimination law in the UK.  Two Parliamentary Committees heard evidence from hundreds of women who had been forced to wear heels (often to the detriment of their health), dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits and constantly reapply make-up whilst at work. 

The issue of dress codes hit the headlines last year after a female worker reported that she had been sent home, without pay, for refusing to comply with a company dress policy which specified that females must wear two to four inch heels.  Her male colleagues were not required to wear similar footwear.  The female in question set up an online petition on the government’s website which attracted over 100,000 signatures and prompted the parliamentary enquiry into the issue. 

It is not uncommon for employers to impose dress codes or appearance requirements on staff because they want to present a professional image or due to health and safety requirements.  However, it was highlighted by MPs in the report that gender specific dress codes reinforce stereotypes which could make lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender workers feel uncomfortable at work and led to discrimination claims being pursued.

 It remains to be seen whether this report will lead to changes in the law.  However, it is a reminder that employers should think carefully about the content of any dress codes that they seek to enforce and identify the reason why they believe the code is necessary to the employee’s role.  Employers should also consider consulting the ACAS and the EHRC guidance on dress codes and ensure that any requirements that are put in place are applied even-handedly between men and women.