By now you have probably heard about the London temp who was sent home from her first day at work for not wearing high heels. I read about it yesterday in The Guardian. She didn't dispute the right of businesses to have a dress code or the need for reception staff to look neat and businesslike, she just didn't see why in this day and age formal flat shoes wouldn't fit the bill. Her role included showing visiting clients to their meeting rooms, and she didn't want to have to do that wearing two to four inch heels through a nine hour working day. And only female staff were expected to undergo this particular discomfort. Her outsource company employers initially laughed at her, then asked her to go and buy some shoes with heels, then sent her home without pay.
Right is entirely on her side. Every kind of orthopoedic specialist or podiatrist will tell you that spending long hours in heels over two inches high is not good for people's health. The strains it puts on the knees, legs and lower back can contribute towards arthritis. Your feet will probably hurt long before the day is out. Habitual heel wearing can cause your calf muscles to shrink so that it hurts to wear flats, meaning it will hurt to do any normal activity needing flat shoes, which includes most forms of exercise. Heels throw your weight forward in the shoe, which is apt to do horrid things to your toes, producing corns, bunions, outer toes permanently twisted over their neighbours. Some women enjoy wearing heels, some even have the knack of walking in them. They are entirely free to wear them, but nobody should be forced into them five days a week.
The outsource company's dress code is juniorist as well as sexist. When I worked as a fund manager at a fairly senior level I wore court shoes with the lowest heel I could find, or if I was wearing a trouser suit I might wear flats. Never, ever did the investment director or head of marketing or anybody else take me aside and say that really for the next client presentation I must buy some taller shoes, or blame a lost pitch on my inadequate one and half inch heels. When I met Marjorie Scardino or Stephanie Shirley I didn't peer at their feet before deciding whether I should take their business acumen seriously: I listened to what they had to say. Professional women at a senior level are not required to function as dolly birds, so why should more junior staff be? The key skills of somebody on reception are to be polite and organised, get visitors' names right and make sure they get to the correct meeting rooms and that their hosts know they are there. To look after them if there's any kind of glitch or delay to their meeting. To be nice, vibrant, cheerful, and give a good impression of the firm for which they are the first point of contact for the office visitor. None, absolutely none of this requires that they sway up and down corridors in shoes they aren't comfortable in.
The rejected temp, having thought about the issue and compared notes with her friends, did something rather wonderful. In a world where whistle blowers are still as likely to be punished as rewarded she started an online Downing Street petition. It's still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist. When I signed it last night it was up to over fourteen thousand signatures. By this morning it had hit sixty thousand. By the time I came in from the garden it had risen above a hundred and ten thousand. Getting through the hundred thousand mark means that it now has to be debated in Parliament, where if I were a male MP I would be very careful about trying to make any kind of joke on the subject.
Go on, sign the petition. Let's get it to the million signature mark, and eradicate one little bit of institutionalised sexism. There are loads more serious issues facing women than their shoes, but progress comes one step at a time. You will find the link here.
The client company PwC have tried to distance themselves from the row, saying they had not set the dress policy and were not aware of it. That's not really an excuse since when you outsource something you should either know the details of what is being done on your behalf, or manage to delegate to somebody who is going to do it properly. But I think their speedy repudiation of the high heels requirement shows which way the wind is blowing. Time to judge women employees on their ability to do the job, not to conform to a particular stereotype of sexiness while in pain and storing up future health problems.