Dress Codes at Work – Time to Address the Dress

Dress Codes at Work – Time to Address the Dress


Workplace dress codes and the rise of ‘lookism’


It was back in 2016 that the term ‘lookism’ – short-hand for looks-based discrimination at work – first gained momentum in the media. On her first day as a receptionist at PwC, agency worker Nicola Thorp was sent home for wearing flat shoes, which went against a female grooming policy that was in place. This stated that women should wear 2-4-inch heels in the workplace.

In the six months that followed, a petition to Parliament calling for high-heels requirements at work to be made illegal received over 150,000 signatures.  The appetite for change was clear and compelling.

Workplace dress codes can exist for good reason, to ensure health and safety for example, and it is understandable for organisations to want their employees to reflect a professional image. Nonetheless, the Nicola Thorp case is an example of how a policy can have an unexpected adverse impact on certain groups. Yes, wearing heels is a choice for many women. But did the policy designers assume all women would (or should) put up with pain to achieve a certain ‘look’ of women in the workplace?


How can businesses respond to ‘lookism’?


Fast forward to last month, and the Government Equalities Office released a new set of guidelines around ‘Dress Codes and Sex Discrimination: What You Need to Know’.  The guidance sets out how the law might apply in cases of sex discrimination where an organisation prescribes gender-specific dress codes, such as high heels, make-up, hair-styles, or revealing clothing for its women employees.

Legally, the crux of the issue lies in whether or not a workplace dress code policy disadvantages and discriminates against women; this is an issue which negatively and disproportionally impacts on women. Dress codes for men and women do not need to be identical, but they must be equivalent.

This also begs the question: is the employee voice present when such policies are designed? Are policy-makers carefully considering the reasons behind their decisions and the impact this will have on the workforce? I suspect there are some policies in today’s workplaces that are just as out-of-dated, yet they are routinely implemented.

When staff do take issues with policies, it presents a perfect opportunity to reflect on the impact of decision-making within the organisation, and to challenge any assumptions that are being made. Right then and there lies the chance to act in the most empowering and productive way: to help promote a more inclusive culture, and to bring about the many business benefits that can follow.

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