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The law must do more to protect employees against sexist dress codes, MPs say

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By Will Macauley

A parliamentary report has concluded that women who are told to wear high heels, makeup or a specific nail polish colour at work require further protection against discrimination.

The report followed a petition set up by Nicola Thorp, after she was asked to leave accounting firm PwC without pay for wearing flat shoes. Thorp worked at PwC via the agency Portico, whose dress code specified:

  • Heels between 2 and 4 inches

  • No visible hair regrowth roots

  • Nail varnish of a specific colour palette

  • The thickness of hosiery

  • Make-up reapplication and specifying lipstick, blusher, mascara, eye-shadow and base.

Thorp’s petition attracted 152,420 signatures and as a response to the petition, the women and equalities committee and the petitions committee invited the public to share examples they had encountered.

The committee heard accounts from women such as shop assistants being told to wear shorter skirts and unbutton blouses, the harassment of females in retail and reception jobs and flight attendants that were pursued by customers over social media.

MPs said that they have heard from women who reported long-term damage caused by wearing heels for long periods of time in the workplace, being asked to dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits or constantly reapply makeup. MPs found that requirements to wear makeup or shorter skirts made the workers feel sexualised by their employer and hindered their progress at work.

The MPs report recommends that the law should be enforced more vigorously and employment tribunals should be given the power to order harsher financial penalties to employers who discriminate. The report also suggests a publicity campaign to educate employers and workers and ensure that sixth-formers know their rights before they enter the workplace.

There are concerns that the Equality Act remains unclear over requirements for some employees to wear makeup and requires women to prove that they have been treated less favourably than their male counterpart, which puts women off making a claim. MPs also expressed concerns that gender specific dress codes could make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers feel uncomfortable at work.

Parliament will debate the matter in March this year.

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