Heels in the Workplace – Professional or Draconian?

Posted By Terri Williams on February 13, 2017 at 12:45 pm
Heels in the Workplace – Professional or Draconian?

Who would have guessed several months ago that when a London receptionist was sent home from work for not wearing heels, the move would spark debate in the United Kingdom and the U.S., with the issue soon to be debated in Parliament. But that’s what happened when Nicola Thorpe, who worked at one of the Big 4 accounting firms, decided to stand up to the company dress code requiring women to wear heels from 2 to 4 inches high.

Thorpe started a petition, which garnered 154,420 signatures; it reads as follows: It’s still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are outdated and sexist.”

This is the response from the Government Equalities Office:

This Government is taking action to remove the barriers to equality for women at work, which is why we are tackling the gender pay gap, increasing the number of women on boards, increasing support for childcare costs and ensuring employers are aware of their obligations to pregnant women. Employers are entitled to set dress codes for their workforce but the law is clear that these dress codes must be reasonable. That includes any differences between the nature of rules for male and female employees, otherwise the company may be breaking the law. Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear. The Government takes this issue very seriously and will continue to work hard to ensure women are not discriminated against in the workplace by outdated attitudes and practices.

Parliament will debate the petition March 6; in the U.S., the story has revived the debate on whether women can be required to wear heels at work.

The health hazard of heels

According to a study in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, over time, wearing high heels contributes to nerve and ligament damage in the ankle. Other research found that wearing high heels can cause a litany of problems, including tightening of the Achilles tendon, joint pain in the ball of the foot, imbalance that can lead to a sprained or broken ankle, poor posture, pressure on the forefoot, and knee joint pressure.

While some women wear heels because they want to, others, including Thorpe, are instructed to do so as a condition of employment. But is it fair?

The double standard

“I personally like to dress up, but the idea that a firm is seriously going to send home a woman for not wearing heels is morally repugnant,” according to Carlota Zimmerman, J.D., a New York-based career coach. Zimmerman tells GoodCall®, “She’s a receptionist, not an escort. How do heels help her answer the phone or direct visitors? How does the height of her heels impact her work?”

This sentiment is shared by New York-based publicist Allison Gayne, who tells GoodCall® that she doesn’t think companies should dictate a woman’s heel height in the workplace. “A woman’s heels do not define her level of expertise or professionalism; what will come next – dictating women’s hair and makeup?” Gayne says its disconcerting that some companies are still applying such superficial requirements to women.

A study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior found that while viewing women in video clips, both men and women judged women to be more attractive when they wore heels instead of flats. But how important is this in the workforce? Should the goal be to make women “more attractive” as they perform their job duties?

“It’s extremely sexist to demand that women wear heels, since how exactly do heels add to the job?” Zimmerman asks. “And if women have to wear heels to perform their jobs, why don’t men?”  If, indeed, this somehow adds to the position, Zimmerman questions how men can perform the same job while they’re in flat shoes.

Simma Lieberman, a diversity and inclusion/culture change consultant in Berkeley, CA, believes companies should focus on creating the type of workplace that encourages people to do their best work. She tells GoodCall®, “It’s hard to believe this is real in 2017 – it’s been time to do away with silly, even dangerous, dress codes from the 1950s.”

Negative underlying messages

“If an employer, and by extension, society, is saying that women must wear heels, let’s be aware of what’s really happening: we’re financially rewarding women for being sexy and attractive,” Zimmerman says.  She believes it speaks to a larger issue: “So what happens to women who aren’t conventionally attractive? They’re relegated to the trash heap of history, no?”

In addition to the physical ailments associated with wearing heels, some women have other health challenges that could be aggravated by heels. “There are many working women who are seniors, or pregnant, or have a physical disability, or simply don’t like heels, and they often perform important jobs and are crucial in their positions.” Zimmerman explains. “At its heart, this whole ‘debate’ is yet another way of propagating the destructive myth that only attractive people (women) have value.”

Gayne does believe that there should be a dress code, depending on the industry and company, but says it should be fair. And Lieberman add, “Even if suits are required for everyone, telling women they have to wear heels is just about exerting power, and taking power and control away from women because what do heels have to do with the bottom line?”

Some women are already sensitive to other issues that may compromise their chances of career success. For example, in a recent survey, 70% of working women who were expecting or new parents said the boss was a determining factor when deciding when to have a baby. Another study revealed that Millennial and GenZ women experienced sexism and workplace bullying – although, ironically, they stated that they were bullied by other women.

Dissenting opinion

However, Billie Blair, PhD, president/CEO of Change Strategists Inc., has a different perspective. While she thinks Thorpe’s case is interesting, she says it’s a cut-and-dried situation. “The woman accepted the job and signed the contract knowing the requirements of the job – thus, case closed,” Blair tells GoodCall®.

“No matter how much you and I might agree about the harmful effects of wearing high heels, if she feels this way, then she should switch jobs where heels are not required and where flats can be worn.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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