Unions have been at the heart of the campaign against sexist dress codes since 2009, when the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (SCP) put a motion to Congress pointing out the long term foot problems from wearing high heels – to much mocking from parts of the press, as my colleague Scarlet Harris blogged.
When Nicola Thorp refused to wear high heels at work the issue attracted new media and political attention. Nicola started a petition calling on the government to outlaw sexist dress codes, which led to a House of Commons Petitions Committee inquiry.
The TUC gave evidence, including examples of where unions had successfully challenged sexist dress codes (Unite won a case at BA to allow women cabin crew to wear trousers and RMT got Virgin to back down from a new uniform that included sheer blouses for women train crew).
The TUC also highlighted the impact of employment tribunal fees, as this was prior to the landmark Unison Supreme Court win to overturn the fees.
The Petitions Committee concluded that it was commonplace for employers in some sectors to make unreasonable requirements of women regarding hair, make up, shoes and clothes.
The committee found that these dress codes objectify women and can leave them feeling vulnerable. They also cited the evidence from the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (SCP) and the TUC that high heels can cause lifelong damage to joints.
The committee also noted that there are various health conditions and impairments which would make the wearing of heels completely impossible, so these dress codes may be discriminatory on the grounds of disability as well as sex.
One of the recommendations from the report was for the government to produce this guidance for employers and employees.
The new guide from the Government Equalities Office sets out the law on dress codes in workplaces including offices, hospitality, the retail sector and airlines. It shows how the law might apply where an employer requires female staff to wear, for instance, high heels, make-up, hair of a particular length or style, or revealing clothing.
It’s good news that the government has taken on board the evidence that the TUC, unions and workers presented, and that the guidance asks employers to consult with trade unions about any proposed dress codes or changes to an existing code.
Instead of waiting for individuals to complain, it is vital that employers involve workers and their unions including health and safety reps in the development of dress codes and uniform policies. Collective bargaining is central to tackling and preventing discrimination at work.
Download Dress codes and sex discrimination – what you need to know (pdf)
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