High heels Pretty Small Shoes store Bloomsbury, London

DRESSING DOWN: Ahead of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, a British parliamentary committee shined a light on companies that force women to wear high heels and wear makeup in the workplace.

The debate, which took place during a Women and Equalities committee meeting in the House of Commons on Monday, was the result of a petition by Nicola Thorp, who was dismissed from her temporary role as a receptionist at PWC after she refused to wear heels, a requirement of her employment agency, Portico. The debate also came in the wake of a report published by the same parliamentary committee in January, noting the numerous issues raised by working women regarding hair, makeup and clothing requirements.

“Not only were they compelled to wear high heels, they were compelled to wear makeup,” said Helen Jones, member of Parliament, of the report’s findings. “We decided to investigate these issues. It is fair to say that what we found shocked us. We found attitudes that were more [relevant to the] 1850s than to the 21st century. We found women were exploited at work. They were forced to bear pain all day or to dress in a way that was demeaning. When they addressed these issues they were dismissed.”

Before publishing the report, the committee heard from hundreds of women with grievances about wearing high heels in the workplace. Some women had been asked to dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits and regularly retouch their makeup. The report said: “No employer should discriminate against their workers on grounds of gender. We expect employers to act in accordance with the law, which is clear that dress codes enforced by employers must be reasonable and include equivalent requirements for both men and women.”

During the debate, a committee member said that the report had highlighted “some really shocking dress codes,” such as companies asking employees to reapply makeup during the day or dress in a “sexualized” way. “We have to show that women have a choice, and when it comes to supporting women in the workplace, we need to be bold. It is a safe bet these dress codes have been under the radar. However, this is not just about shoes, it’s about how people are treated and, in particular, women. It is essential they should feel comfortable. They should feel empowered to do their best at their work. We will be issuing our [official] response later this month.”

The committee added it had reached out to various industries including tourist, retail and hospitality, to review their dress codes.