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The Government needs to increase penalties for employers who enforce discriminatory dress codes on women, according to a report by the Women & Equalities Committee.
The report follows an inquiry into dress codes as a result of a petition calling for it to be illegal for a company to require its female staff to wear high heels at work. The petition, launched after a woman was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels, was signed by more than 150,000 people.
The Committee heard from hundreds of women who said they had been forced to wear high heels at work, sometimes causing pain and long-term damage. They also heard from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up.
The Government has said the existing law is clear and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful, but the Committee says discriminatory dress codes are widespread. It states: “It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work,” says the report. It calls on the Government to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to change it, if necessary, to make it more effective.
It adds that the relationship between the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and workplace dress codes is not widely understood, with the Government expecting employers to inform themselves about their legal obligations and to comply with the law. The Committee says this approach is not working. “The Government must do more to promote understanding of the law on gender discrimination in the workplace among employees and employers alike,” it states.
The report recommends that the Government substantially increase the penalties available to employment tribunals to award against employers, including the financial penalties, because it believes current penalties are not a sufficient deterrent to breaking the law.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Far too many employers are still stuck in the past when it comes to dress codes. It is unacceptable that in 2017 bosses are still forcing women to wear painful, inappropriate shoes and uniforms.
“Wearing high heels on a regular basis can cause foot, knee and back problems. High heels and make-up should be a choice, not a condition of the job.
“But with employment tribunals costing up to £1,200 – even if you’re on the minimum wage – many women can’t afford to challenge sexist policies. If ministers are serious about enforcing equality legislation then they should scrap tribunal fees immediately.”
Kate Palmer, Head of Advisory at Peninsula UK, an HR, Employment Law and Health & Safety Consultancy, said the Equality Act 2010 prohibits employers from treating members of staff less favourably because of protected characteristics, including sex or gender.
She added: “Employers are entitled to have and implement a dress code in their business; they may even be required to do so because of health and safety standards. However, employers should ensure that their dress codes are not discriminating against certain members of staff. Dress codes must apply equally to men and women although they may have different requirements so long as these are of a similar standard. For example, a requirement for men to wear a shirt and tie will not treat men less favourably if women are expected to wear smart office attire. The same cannot be said of the requirement to wear high heels; smart footwear can be achieved through wearing flat shoes and it is likely the requirement to wear high heels is less favourable treatment as they are requiring females to look ‘sexy’ rather than smart.”
She had this advice for employers: “When implementing a dress code which requires different treatment for men and women, employers need to ensure they have a genuine business reason for the difference to justify the policy. Some employers may require different dress for authenticity reasons or because the job role requires it, though it may be hard to prove this. It is essential that employers take time to speak to members of staff about the dress code and take on board any individual concerns, especially if these are related to gender.”