That, it seems, is the question. I couldn’t quite believe it when I stumbled across the story of Nicola Thorp, a London receptionist who was sent home from work because she refused to wear high heeled shoes. Heels for women were part of the dress code in the company guidelines she agreed to, so there was not much she could do about it. But in 2016 there is always the Facebook post, which predictably went viral. Next she got 10 000 signatures on a petition calling on UK lawmakers to make law that women could not be forced to wear high heels at work.
This is what the petition says. “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.”
10 000 signatures mean the UK government has to consider it (though my guess is that right now they are a bit distracted with Brexit). She’s also thinking about a petition against women being forced to wear make-up at work.
What do you think? How ridiculous was my first thought? She should be able to wear what she wants, as long as she can do the job. How does the company even have a leg to stand on? I raged a bit. The company’s response was that in a client facing role appearance guidelines are common – there’s a brand and an image they want to project and 5 to 10 cm heels are part of the professional image they want. That’s when I wobbled a bit.
‘Cause un-PC as it probably is to admit, in the days when I lawyered for a living, heels did make me feel a bit more professional. I’m not exactly sure why. But in a world where nearly everyone was taller than my 1.65m self and (in the beginning) just about everyone was older than my 22-year-old self, putting on heels and a suit was the mental equivalent of strapping on office armor. In flat shoes I felt like a little girl. Even when the regular stomp across town to court meant sore feet, I wore heels. I don’t think they were part of the dress code, they just worked for me and so I wore them. All the professional women around me wore heels too. It was like that throughout my corporate career.
The difference of course between Nicola Thorpe and me is the question of choice. I don’t know about the other women I worked with but I chose to wear heels because of how they made me feel. Someone more critical might say it was all indoctrination and patriarchal culture deciding what looked professional and that compelled me to dress a certain way. Maybe, but give me some credit – even then I knew I was greater than the height of my heels. I could’ve done that damn job without heels, but heels gave me a bit of something besides just an extra five centimeters. I’m not suggesting that it’s like this for everyone. Nicola Thorpe clearly doesn’t feel that way about her heels, the only feeling they give her are sore feet. I’m also not suggesting that wearing high heels is a sure fire the way for women to feel professional and powerful. (Don’t laugh, look at this load of BS.. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/27/japanese-women-urged-to-empower-themselves-in-high-heels/ )
But. There’s always a but isn’t there? Every industry, every business everywhere has a brand and an image they want to project. That’s sort of their business right to decide in my non-legal opinion. And if it’s in the job description and you’re not happy with it then surely you should just vote with your feet? Do something different or suck it up. I know, I know. Not a foolproof argument but a part of me feels that some things just come with the territory. If you are a lawyer then chances are great that at some stage in your career you’ll wear a black suit, with heels if you’re a woman, and ties if you’re a man. It’s the nature of the beast, part of the “look” that you will be required to have on at least a few occasions. And similarly, if you are a receptionist, like Nicola Thorpe, chances are great that the business is going to prescribe your “look”. That look might well include heels and make up. It’s the nature of the beast.
Not so simple because I don’t really have a yay / nay answer that feels totally right. She should be able to choose. But what if that doesn’t fit with the business? A business should also be able to choose it’s look. But what if that look is unreasonable? Should someone standing on their feet for nine hours really be forced to wear heels? Not sure if heels are sexist as the petition claims but it does sounds a bit sadistic to me.
There you have it. My qwerky thoughts for the week. Written all while wearing my winter mom uniform of sweater, jeans and trainers. And let me tell you – even if the clothes got an upgrade, in this job not even my old heels would make me feel like I know what I’m doing!
Heels or no heels, have fun my friends,
PS post some comments please? It’s school holidays with kids 24/7 so I need to hear some more adult voices.
PPS See the article that got me going here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/nicola-thorp-high-heels-row-its-sexist-to-insist-that-women-wear/ and the petition here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/129823