Who would have thought a simple pair of stilettos could blow up into such a sexist storm? Rhian Morgan takes a look at the case of Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels
Even as I write this, I am in a state of disbelief. Who would have thought that in 2016, I would be writing such a piece? It beggars belief.
Nicola Thorp, the woman who was sent home from work for not wearing heels, has told GMB she was "laughed at" by her employers for suggesting it was discriminatory not to apply the same rule to men. The 27-year-old said the policy harks back to at "a very old fashioned image of the woman at work". She started a petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work that has been signed by more than 100,000 people. This has led to Portico, the reception firm who employed Thorp to work at accountancy firm PwC, to change its dress code policy. Workplace rules on office attire based on sexuality need to be consigned to the history books.
The 27-year-old launched the campaign after Portico insisted that she would need to wear heels because they were considered essential "female grooming policy". Now how many women do you see commuting to work in skyscraper heels? This is not the 80s (though I'm sure Portico wishes it was). Flats are the order of the day. Not only are high heels unfashionable they are also painful, cause health problems, and are restrictive in that not all women can wear them. Does this mean Portico would refuse to employ pregnant women or women with disabilities?
Now, I am not against a 'workplace uniform'. While it is essential for miners to wear helmets, for example, it would be daft to insist it is mandatory for all workers. Equally, although reasonably smart attire such as suits aren't essential, they do create a good impression. And don't get me started on flip-flops in the office – my pet hate. They look awful but, more importantly, they too cause damage, with employees tripping downstairs in them and stumbling around. My own belief is that workwear should be reasonably smart, comfortable, practical to the job concerned, and not distracting. High heels as "essential female grooming" can be smart but they do not fit the other criteria and hence should be down to the individual (and I mean men, women, trans, whomever) who wants to wear it out of personal choice.
When I brought up this headline story to a friend (non-journalist), she brought up a pertinent fact that I, who have been a cynical hack for years, should have thought of. She said that it is awfully convenient that Nicola is an actress with model looks. Could she have heard about Portico's policy and decided this was free publicity? Or could her agency have advised her to do this? It is certainly true that certain national media will only feature a woman in a soft news story if she is attractive. And would the media have been in such uproar if it was an older, less-attractive woman?
However, on balance, I do not think that is the salient point. She has achieved national awareness to a hideous policy and now has forced Government to investigate with her petition. Good on her, I say.
Of course, certain groups have jumped on the bandwagon and turned it into a sexist storm. They are the type of groups who see feminism as an f-word, and believe that women should stop whining. For them, I would say: would you wear high heels in the office? If not, then you need to question your beliefs. Why did Portico implement that policy? Was it because wearing high heels is akin to wearing a tie, as some men have argued. (Ties, to my knowledge, do not cause muscular-skeletal disorders, though admittedly are uncomfortable. And would you be happy to be sent home for not wearing a tie?). Or is it because certain people, not just men, judge women as looking sexy in heels, as it elongates the leg but also makes it more difficult to run away from unwanted advances. The rule is as ridiculous as an agency insisting male employees wear Speedos to work.
Let's hope that it will soon it will be illegal to force employees to wear unsuitable clothes. And let's also hope that in a decade's time, this story will be treated as an urban myth rather than a sexist reality.