Is Gender Equality really that much of a tall order to achieve?

Many will have seen coverage this week of the most recent reminder that some organisation’s views are still decades behind where they perhaps should be. I refer of course to the news that Nicola Thorp, a receptionist was sent home from work for refusing to wear high-heels under a veiled argument of failure to comply with “appearance guidelines”. I find news like this interesting and frustrating in equal measure. Interesting because it sparks conversation and thought around the issue of gender equality; frustrating because in 2016, we are still having to have conversations and thoughts around whether it is appropriate to insist a female member of staff wear high heels to sit behind the desk of a reception.

Dress Codes

In HR Consultancy, we are often asked to draft bespoke policies for clients which cover acceptable dress code within the organisation and I wholeheartedly agree that it is reasonable for an employer to have such a policy. We take into consideration the industry and sector in which the client operates, their culture and the organisation’s own views when tailoring these policies and the criteria (or guidelines) for the organisation to initiate disciplinary proceedings, should an employee be in breach of the policy. I am pleased to say I have never been asked by a client to compromise my integrity by adding a section to a policy which would only apply to members of a certain gender. As Ms Thorpe stated to the employer, the same would not have been asked of a male employee.

The organisation who enforced this policy have confirmed they are reviewing the matter, but it took someone to complain publicly for them to do it, so any change made is unlikely to be done so, simply because it is the right thing to do.

Moral Issue

Much of the commentary on this topic surrounds the question of whether the dress code was justifiable from a legal perspective. There are cases for both sides on that front. I am more interested in the moral aspect of having a policy such as this in place.

For me, it should be down to the personal choice of the individual whether or not they wish to wear heels. But if the coin is flipped it raises an interesting point. If a male employee was to decide to turn up to work wearing heels for the same role, how would the organisation respond to this?

By enforcing this provision onto female members of staff is there a suggestion that visitors to the building would take issue if the receptionist was not wearing heels? I am surmising somewhat, but to think that people would still hold an expectation such as this in 2016 is frustrating, given all the efforts and initiatives to reduce gender inequality which exist.

Viral News

Another interesting aspect of this is the attention that is being paid to the issue, which can only be a good thing. The petition started by Ms Thorpe to have it made illegal for a company to force a female member of staff to wear high heels now having over 127,000 signatures. The UK media is covering the story and without linking directly to every single article, I haven’t come across one yet that is in support of the employer on this matter. The news has even spread across the Atlantic and so hopefully this can serve as a positive assault on gender inequality in the workplace.

Interesting to me on this note is where PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) fits into the furore, as it was within their offices that the issue arose. They did not employ Ms Thorpe, nor was it their policy that caused the fallout, the policy belonged to Portico who PwC outsourced their reception services to. However, PwC’s name is all over the story and rightly or wrongly they are being referenced multiple times throughout the coverage. This demonstrates just how easily social media can impact an organisation’s reputation, which is another area of great interest to me. I am sure the PwC PR department is working overtime at present (hopefully they all have comfortable footwear on!) to reassert that this was not their policy.

Take a look at this video by Stylist Magazine showing just how tough a few men found it to walk in high heels!