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When PwC fired Nicola Thorp for refusing to wear high heels to work, she ignited a heated debate over expectations towards female employees. Not much has changed ever since.


One woman’s fight

A London receptionist Nicola Thorp arrives into the office at a finance company PwC. It’s December. It’s her first day of work. She chooses to wear flat shoes. As soon as the supervisor notices her, she’s being told to change footwear to something deemed more appropriate – high heels.

“I said ‘if you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job today, then fair enough’, but they couldn’t,” Thorp said in an interview for BBC Radio London.

“I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I said ‘I just won’t be able to do that in heels’.”

The incident ended with Thorp going home.

Reasonable Prevails

Under the British law, employers have the right to fire an employee for failing to follow company’s dress code. On this note, Thorp did sign “the appearance guidelines” before starting working with PwC, the company representatives argued.

Nicola Thorp decided to speak up about her experience and started raising signatures for a petition to change the law. “I don’t hold anything against the company necessarily because they are acting within their rights as employers to have a formal dress code, and as it stands, part of that for a woman is to wear high heels,” Thorp said.

Instead, Thorp’s initiative targeted the law itself. Forcing female employees to comply with some arbitrary gender-based expectations is simply not how we should be doing things these days anymore, rightly argued the petition. Exactly 154,420 people signed under the following words: “current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.”

At the end, the petition didn’t succeed. The government opted for leaving the flexible, yet vague clause of “reasonability” of dress codes untouched.

Professional Appearance 

The story of Nicola Thorp hit the headlines because it was an extreme example of enforcing sexist rules in the workplace. But, in fact, it also represented broad concerns among employees overall. According to a recent study, 12% of the UK’s workforce has considered quitting a job because of the strict dress code.

It remains a gender issue nonetheless. What for some men might be a matter of inconvenience, for many women is an issue of how their employers perceive them in the work environment. Wearing high heels, skirts, or using full make-up are all valid choices for a woman. I repeat, choices.

The deeply disturbing problem with work dress codes is not that they exist at all. The problem lies in the detailed requirements towards female employees and what they reveal about the perception of women in work setting.

There are virtually two main visions of a working woman. It will either entail wearing full make-up and high heels or, on the other side of this spectrum, it will require women to use minimal makeup and “modest” clothing.

What is wrong here is that employers establish different grounds for guidelines, based on gender. Both women and men are expected to look professional. For women, however, it always requires either overemphasizing their femininity or shaming women into desexualising their appearance.

The High Heels Culture

Clearly, the problem of arcane workplace dress codes is only a symptom of a far more serious disease. The problem lies deeper in the societal consensus of women’s role in the social hierarchy, but really it all goes down to a simple truth that women do not receive equal respect to men.

Have you wondered why many men never truly grow out of the locker room bro talk? It is frequently dismissed as innocent and harmless. Is it though?

The current wave of sexual harassment allegations towards men in power gives a sense of how widespread the problem actually is. Or, if you prefer numerical evidence, 60% of women in the U.S. tech industry have experienced sexual harassment. But it’s not only about harassment.

The underlying assumption that women are inherently weaker or inferior precludes most women from ever ascending to leadership. Imagine a room with twenty women and one man. Who is the natural candidate for a leader of the meeting? Now, reverse the scenario. The female leadership in a male-dominated environment is challenged every single day.

Shoo the Shoe

There is an intangible layer of permissibility and sense of entitlement that legitimizes men to pursue sexual advancements in workplaces. And work dress codes are obviously not the only one to blame. They do, however, have the power to normalize certain behaviours among men. For this reason, the seemingly simple fight for a high heels-free requirement is actually about getting a foot in the door of gender equality.


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