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Discriminatory dress codes get a dressing down

Discriminatory dress codes get a dressing down

Marilyn Monroe once famously said “I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot!”

Well, not everyone agrees with the actress’ sentiments. In December 2015, Nicola Thorpe started a petition which attracted over 152,000 signature after she was sent home from her role as a receptionist for refusing to wear high heels. As a result of Ms Thorpe’s petition, Parliament’s Petitions Committee has carried out an inquiry into discriminatory dress codes.

The inquiry report concluded that the Equality Act 2010 is not yet fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination. It suggests that there are grey areas in terms of what would constitute a discriminatory dress code, for example whether a requirement on women to wear make-up would fall foul of the protections or not, and that individuals seem frequently to only make informal complaints to their employers rather than taking formal action.

Although the report also highlights perhaps more obvious concerns regarding particular dress codes for women which appear to sexualise them (in contrast to their male peers), it also notes that the practice of prescriptive gender based dress codes can also create particular issues for individuals who do not conform to gender stereotypes, including skewing perceptions of what it is like to be a man or a woman. Disabled people can also be particularly negatively impacted.

The report recommends that, as well as considering changes to the scope of the legislation to clarify which dress code practices should be deemed illegal, the Government should introduce guidance with a particular focus on sectors which are most likely to implement such dress codes, for example hospitality and tourism sectors.

The inquiry report also calls for the Government to take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the legislation, including by providing more effective remedies for discriminatory dress codes – such as increased financial penalties, and potentially injunctive relief.