The government has published its response to the House of Commons Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee joint report on dress codes in the workplace.
In December 2015, Nicola Thorp arrived to work as a receptionist wearing flat shoes and was sent home without pay by her agency for failure to comply with its dress code, which required women to wear shoes with heels of between two and four inches. The story received widespread media coverage and Ms Thorp started a petition calling for the law to be changed to make it illegal to require women to wear high heels at work. More than 150,000 people signed the petition.
On 20 April 2017, the government published its response to the Committees’ report and recommendations. The introduction states that the government will work to ensure women are not held back in the workplace by outdated attitudes and practices. However, the government has rejected any recommendations that would require legislative change, favouring an approach based on more detailed guidance and awareness campaigns. This is because the government believes that existing law is sufficient to protect women who are subjected to discriminatory dress codes.
The government maintained that the law is clear, but poorly understood, and that there are some “bad employers” who deliberately flout it. But the reality is that there is a lack of recent case law on whether, and in what circumstances, a dress code constitutes sex discrimination. This uncertainty, together with the fact that few cases are brought challenging discriminatory dress codes, can be exploited by employers.