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WOMEN who joined the #fawcettfridayflats campaign yesterday struck a blow against discriminatory dress codes that force them into footwear that’s both painful and bad for their health.
That a City firm as well-known as PriceWaterhouseCoopers can insist on its female workforce sporting high-heeled shoes shows how acceptable sexism still is.
Nicola Thorp’s refusal to comply with the dress code was courageous, prompting mockery when she asked why women should be made to wear high heels if men were not and resulting in her being sent home without pay when she stood her ground.
High heels are not comparable to other dress code requirements.
Unlike hard hats or steel-capped boots on building sites, they serve no safety purpose.
Where they impede mobility they may actually leave workers less safe. The American Osteopathic Society’s research suggests that a third of women have fallen while wearing high heels.
And while some workplaces may legitimately require workers to dress smartly there are plenty of smart flat shoes available which do not carry the longer-term health risks of high heels.
These are real enough. The Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists points out that over time wearing heels “can cause long-term foot problems, such as blisters corns and callus, to serious foot, knee and back pain, and damaged joints.
“Women workers should not be made to adhere to a dress code that can damage their feet and should have the choice to wear footwear that will not leave them prone to long-term foot health problems.”
Given their obvious impracticality, what motivates firms to insist that women wear high heels?
TUC women’s equality officer Scarlet Harris argues that “employers like Portico [the agency firm which sent Ms Thorp to PriceWaterHouseCoopers] can pretend all they like that high-heeled shoes equal ‘smart’ shoes but they’re just being coy.
“‘Smart’ appears to be code for ‘sexy’ in this instance.
“A dress code that requires women to look sexy, regardless of the pain or discomfort it might cause them, has no place in the modern workplace.”
And she notes that the case illustrates that “gender norms are as pervasive and rigid as ever, if not more so” in modern Britain, despite claims that they are being broken down.
Ms Thorp found that “legally, the only way I can defend my right to wear flat shoes at work is if I want to identify with my employer as a male.”
This is absurd. A woman should not have to assign herself a different gender in order to wear what she wants.
Ms Thorp’s petition, calling on the government to change the law on company dress codes to prevent employers forcing women to wear high heels, will get its parliamentary debate — having received considerably more than the 100,000 signatures required. It is to be hoped that ministers will listen and this sensible and overdue measure will soon be the law of the land.
But our society is still patriarchal. Women earn less than men. They are less represented at the highest levels of political, professional and corporate power and are subject to myriad forms of discrimination on a daily basis, without even going into the violence they suffer at overwhelmingly male hands.
Male and female gender stereotypes act to reinforce and perpetuate this oppression. Even if in recent times it has become easier to move from one to the other, this does not solve the problem any more than a bus driver’s son like Sajid Javid entering the Cabinet ends the exploitation of the working class.
True progress will entail mounting a challenge to the influence of gender, a social and ideological construct which assigns stereotypical roles to individuals depending on their sex.
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