It's not just discriminatory to make women wear heels at work - it's impractical

A receptionist was sent home from a PwC office for refusing to change shoes, but it's not just sexism that's the problem here.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2016

Many offices have dress codes – the dreaded ‘smart casual’ can be a minefield of trying to work out where your chosen outfit for the first day falls on the spectrum. And it's understandable that some occasions demand different attire – you might more formal wear for high-profile business deals than in the day to day runnings of a small tech firm.

Less understandable is the premise that any working woman should be forced to wear high heels for her job, which is apparently what happened to Nicola Thorp after turning up for her first day at PwC’s Embankment offices. She was wearing flat shoes and was promptly told by a supervisor she had to come in specifically wearing two to four inch heels (no word on whether they’d be measuring to check said shoes fit the requirements). Thorp refused and said she was sent home without pay, but not until she’d been ‘laughed at’ for claiming the demand was discriminatory since men were allowed to don flat shoes. She’d also been told to wear make-up and was helpfully given a colour chart to describe what were deemed ‘acceptable shades’.

This incident doesn't seem to be PwC's fault - the firm was quick to point out Thorp was employed as a temp by its outsourced reception firm Portico, while the dress code in question wasn't a PwC policy.

Portico's MD Simon Pratt said: 'It is common practice within the service sector to have appearance guidelines and Portico operates them across many of our corporate locations. These policies ensure customer-facing staff are consistently well presented and positively represent a client’s brand and image. They include recommendations for appropriate style of footwear for the role. We have taken on board the comments regarding footwear and will be reviewing our guidelines.' 

As Pratt's LinkedIn profile notes, he himself has extensive experience working front of house - no word on whether he also donned high heels to do so though.

Really, the idea that a person needs to wear high heels for any position is absurd (if anything you'd think they’d hinder your ability to get a job done effectively...). Thorp has since launched an online petition to try and make it illegal for companies to force women to wear high heels to work and it seems to have struck a chord – at the time of writing the petition had over 6,000 signatures.

That’s not particularly surprising – as well as the obvious discriminatory factor to the situation, heels are the bane of many women’s lives. Quite simply, it’s unrealistic to expect workers to wear them, and for some it’s just not a practical option. Not everyone can wear them and feel comfortable doing so. People should be given the freedom to choose for themselves and not a veneer of choice where policy says one thing and pressure from the office culture says another. There’s usually enough stress in people’s day jobs as it is – adding in another unnecessary hassle such as an outdated and more often than not uncomfortable dress code is a sure-fire to make employees miserable. And when have you ever heard of a member of staff doing a better job when feeling wretched?

This isn't just a sign that double standards are still out in force in the workplace. It's also a reminder that outsourcing your office functions to another company also means leaving your reputation in their hands. 

UPDATE: Portico has hastily reviewed said policy after yesterday's backlash. Its MD said: 'We are making it very clear that with immediate effect, all our female colleagues can wear plain flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer. We are proud to have an Investors in People Gold Standard accreditation, which involves a high degree of consultation and teamwork within our business and we are glad to take this opportunity to make a further improvement to our practice.'

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