LONDON: British lawmakers focused on footwear Monday, asking whether employers should be able to make women wear high heels as part of a corporate dress code.
Members of Parliament were to debate a ban on mandatory workplace high heels, in response to a petition started by a receptionist who was sent home without pay for wearing flat shoes.
Nicola Thorp was told in December 2015 that her shoes were unacceptable for a temporary assignment in London with finance firm PwC.
Her employment agency, Portico, had a dress code specifying that female workers must wear non-opaque tights, have hair with "no visible roots," wear "regularly re-applied" makeup — and appear in shoes with a heel between 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimetres) high.
For Thorp, that was a step too far.
She started an online petition, calling formal workplace dress codes "outdated and sexist." It has gathered more than 150,000 signatures, making it eligible for a debate in Parliament.
Thorp told the BBC that "dress codes should reflect society."
"Twenty years ago, women weren't allowed to wear trousers in the same role that I'm doing now," she said. "And it's only because some women spoke up about that and said, 'We feel like we have a right to wear trousers,' that that's changed."
Monday's debate is non-binding, but the political pressure for companies to scrap mandatory high heels is building. British law forbids companies from discriminating against women, but Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee said in a report sparked by Thorp's experience that "discriminatory dress codes" remain commonplace.
The lawmakers said they heard from hundreds of women "who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply makeup."
The committee also heard from the College of Podiatry, which said women who wear high heels for long periods of time have "reduced balance, reduced ankle flexion and weaker muscle power in the calf." It also said they are prone to disabling pain.
The committee urged the government to enforce existing laws against discrimination and impose higher fines on companies that break the rules.
In London's financial district on Monday, many workers felt that companies were entitled to impose dress codes — but that mandatory high heels went too far.
"A lot of things are enforced, but high heels in particular — because that can also be a health issue for people — I think that's unnecessary," said company director Penelope Mantzaris.
Banker Dan Matthews said his company expected men to wear suits and ties "and I think that's a fair request."
"So I suppose it's fairly contradictory in a way because in one respect I'm saying that we men should be required to wear a suit and tie but women shouldn't wear high heels," he said. "But I think that's just where the line happens to be at the moment."
In response to Thorp's petition, the government said the law already specifies that dress codes must be reasonable and "make equivalent requirements for men and women."
"Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear," the government said.
Thorp's petition has already caused one change. Portico announced last year it was amending its policy to adopt a gender-neutral dress code and to allow workers to wear flat shoes if they prefer.