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Should women have to wear heels to work?

The expectation that women wear high heels to work, or anywhere for that matter, seems like an old-fashioned notion. Recently UK-based PricewaterhouseCoopers receptionist Nicola Thorp was told that she needed to wear heels in the office to meet the company’s dress code standards, and she refused.

In the UK, it’s still legal for companies to impose rules that enforce high heels as part of a dress code. But Thorp created a petition to change this law, stating ‘Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.’ More than 135,000 people have signed it so far.

While some women choose to wear high heels to work, there’s a difference between a personal decision and a workplace requirement. But is asking women to wear heels any different to expecting men to wear a shirt and a tie to the office?

According to Dr Michelle Smith from Deakin University’s School of Communications and Creative Arts, working in high heels is a much greater imposition on a woman’s comfort than a shirt and tie. No other item of clothing that people commonly wear to work can cause long-term damage to the body. ‘The fact you see many professional women walking home or to public transport in their sneakers tells you how much heels can impair a woman’s ability to simply move around, free from pain,’ Dr Smith says.

'The fact you see many professional women walking home or to public transport in their sneakers tells you how much heels can impair a woman's ability to simply move around, free from pain.'

Dr Michelle Smith,
Deakin University

Lawyer Bianca Mazzarella told SmartCompany that women can’t be expected to wear heels unless men are expected to do the same thing. ‘A woman can claim she’s being discriminated against in the workplace based on gender,’ Mazzarella said, and suggested that anyone who felt that they were being unfairly treated could lodge a complaint to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

Since the incident, PricewaterhouseCoopers has worked with Portico, the temp staff agency, to review dress standards and Portico has updated its uniform policy, scrapping the expectation that women wear heels to work.

Many celebrities are bucking the age-old trend of heels on the red carpet, too. Julia Roberts recently stunned the crowd when she revealed bare feet under her gown, while a pregnant Rebecca Judd opted for comfortable flat sandals under her Cinderella-style Logies dress. Dr Smith predicts a future where we’ll be ‘more conscious of gender discrimination’ in dress codes. She highlights current debates about school uniforms, where people are opposing rules that don’t permit girls to wear pants. ‘Requirements to wear skirts and heels in the workplace seem much more grounded in outmoded expectations about women as decorative ornaments in certain industries,’ she concludes.


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