Are High Heels an Instrument of Sex Discrimination?

Workplace gender discrimination comes in all shapes and sizes—from pay inequity and preferential hiring to sexist remarks and outright harassment—but rarely does it involve the fashion preferences of heads of state.

In what Arthur Conan Doyle might have called "The Case of the Prime Minister’s Shoes," British PM Theresa May, who succeeded David Cameron following the Brexit referendum in June, has been asked to wear more practical shoes as a statement against sexist dress codes.

Only the second British woman to reach the office of prime minister, May is known for a fashion sense that "appears both formidable and accessible at the same time," according to "style and brand expert" Nick Ede, as quoted in the Daily Mail. And she is credited by some, including a spokesperson for multinational clothing retailer JD Williams, with "single-handedly revolutionizing the way female politicians look."

There is some evidence already that May will be a trend setter. JD Williams’s sales of "kitten heels" (actually a sort of leopard print with a two-inch heel), May’s signature shoe, jumped 14 percent the week the new prime minister took office.

And that, according to some, is the problem.

At a recent Trades Unions Congress conference, delegate Penny Robinson of 700,000-member trade union GMB seconded a motion, which passed unanimously, that legal protections be enacted "to enable people to not be compelled to wear high heels at work."

As reported in HR Review, Robinson told the conference: "Our new prime minister might be well known for her leopard-print kittens, her leather boots and of course her Jimmy Choos, but if she really wants to advance the cause for women in the workplace [she should] make a point of wearing pumps, flats and comfortable shoes for her cabinet, PMQs [prime minister question sessions in the House of Commons] and for meeting all those EU leaders."

Robinson continued: "Let the media see that you can be the most powerful woman in the country without needing to wear designer shoes to meet men’s expectations. Women are still expected to wear completely inappropriate shoes every day just to make sure that the right image is portrayed for the employer."

The TUC’s interest in mandatory heels arises in part from the case of Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist for a London office of PwC who was sent home because she refused to wear heels. Again from HR Review: "I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms," Robinson said. "I said ‘I just won’t be able to do that in heels.’"

Under the law the TUC wants changed, an employer can set different rules for the way male and female employees dress, and unwillingness to follow an employer’s dress code is grounds for summary dismissal. Thorp herself has written a petition to prohibit mandatory heel wear in the office, and it has garnered more than 150,000 signatures.

The story has gotten considerable media attention, covered not just by the Daily Mail, but also by the Mirror, the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times, among other news outlets.

Despite this attention, the prime minister doesn’t appear to be changing her leopard spots, as you can tell from a recent photograph that was taken when she greeted Burmese State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street.

Bloomberg BNA’s International HR Decision Support Network  provides resources, including labor and employment law primers on more than 70 countries, to help you stay compliant and develop policies for your international operations. Start your free trial  today.