Fancy having to dye your hair blond for work? Being told to reapply your makeup every hour? Or how about being forced to wear high heels and skimpy clothes?
While these examples may sound like relics from the last century, in fact they were all recently given as evidence by women to a government committee.
Dress codes in the workplace are not uncommon. It is perfectly lawful for an employer to impose a standard of dress in the workplace, like a uniforms for the police or wearing a suit to the office. However, the evidence above reveals that far from setting out rules that promote professionalism in the workplace, many employers have been imposing discriminatory and often unlawful dress codes on female employees.
Unsurprisingly, these women’s experiences have resulted in a call for legal reform. The idea that such treatment is not already unlawful seems odd, but probably owes more to the way in which cases on dress codes have been decided.
The Equality Act provides protection when the way in which dress codes are applied amount to unlawful discrimination. For example, requiring a woman to wear revealing clothing might amount to sex discrimination or insisting that a Sikh remove their turban might amount to religious discrimination.
It is NOT the case that a requirement imposed on one sex and not the other will automatically amount to discrimination. If the code could be said to enforce a conventional standard of smartness, it will not necessarily be viewed as discriminatory. For example a male worker could legitimately be asked not to wear his hair below the collar as the standard convention for male smartness is not one of long hair. Similarly, it is not considered discriminatory to require men to wear ties but not women.
However, the extremes of these examples show that some women are still labouring under a stereotypical idea of how they should look in the workplace. Even though the courts have taken a conservative approach to this issue in the past, it’s unlikely that an employer could justify the requirement for an employee to wear high heels or dye their hair.
However, new legislation would strengthen the position of women who face this type of discrimination from their bosses and send a clear signal to employers that this type of behaviour is unacceptable.