Nicola Thorp, a temp reporting for her first day of work at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London, set off an online debate over high heels this week, after she said she was sent home for showing up to work in flat shoes instead of high heels.
PwC, if you’re not familiar, is not a tango club, nor a high heel-testing company. It is a financial advisory firm, where Thorp was to work as a receptionist, escorting clients to meeting rooms. Thorp imagined she could cover her responsibilities in flat shoes, but a supervisor from Portico, the temp agency that sent her on the job, reportedly told her otherwise.
“The supervisor told me that I would be sent home without pay unless I went to the shop and bought a pair of two to four-inch heels,” Thorp told the London Evening Standard. “When I pointed out that my male colleague was allowed to work in flat shoes, and that I felt that I was being discriminated against, I was laughed at.”
Heels are complicated. They can wreak havoc on one’s health, as Mary Karr wrote, hilariously, just this week in a New Yorker piece entitled “Down with High Heels.” Yet some of us feel more powerful in them. They make women both weaker and stronger—and that’s not just how they make us feel; it’s the science of what they do to our ankles.
Was it actually illegal to require Thorp to work in them? According to the employment law firm Thompsons, gender-specific dress codes are permissible in the UK, “as long as they don’t treat one or other of the sexes less favourably.” (This is similar to the law under Title VII in the US.)
Heels for men were once a status symbol, and, according to some, they’re making a comeback. But I would guess that any male employee of PwC required to walk between conference rooms in high heels might feel less favorably treated than a colleague in flats. It’s also probably true that a woman would be no less thrilled to be forced to wear a suit and tie in the height of summer.
Isn’t it about time to do away with gender-specific dress codes? Maybe this kerfluffle can help catalyze a professional culture where requirements are a little more fluid—and relevant. If New York City is any indication, that’s the way things are going, says Susan Scafidi, the founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute. The New York City Commission on Human Rights announced in December that any gender-specific dress code is discriminatory.
“Under the new New York City law, it would certainly be illegal for an employer to require female employees to wear heels,” says Scafidi, “Unless her male colleagues were required to do so as well.”
Instead of going out and buying a pair of heels, Thorp spoke to the press and started a petition to make it illegal for an employer to require women to wear high heels. At the time of writing, it had more than 97,000 signatures.
In a statement, PwC outsourced responsibility for the incident to Portico, just like it outsources its front-of-house staff. Portico has since revised its dress code.
It’s about time. A professional dress code, after all, should protect workers’ safety, make employees identifiable where necessary, and project the image a company wishes to present to the public. Surely even in the stalest, staidest, most corporate of offices, there’s room for a woman to wear flats or a man to ditch his jacket.
It’s 2016. Pop culture and the fashion industry have begun to recognize that sex and gender aren’t perfectly binary. It’s time for professional dress codes to do the same.