When you think of 'smart' clothing for men and women, what does your mind go to? High heels and a pencil skirt for women? Shirt, tie and blazer for men? If you think that, you're not alone. However, imagine not wearing these typical items of clothing, and being punished at work for it. For example, a man being sent home from work because he didn't wear a blazer but a smart jacket, or a woman being sent home because she didn't wear heels but smart flat shoes? While those things may seem ridiculous, this was the reality for Nicola Thorp, who the BBC reports set up an online petition after she was sent home from her temp job for refusing to wear high heeled shoes
The petition got enough signatures to be debated in Parliament.
The petition exceeded the 100,000 signature minimum, meaning it was debated in Parliament. The BBC reports that MPs found that this was a bigger problem nationwide than they thought.
Yet, if you look deep enough, you'll see that this cliche of smart womenswear has always been an issue, but we just overlooked it. Even if you simply Google search "smart women's clothing", a lot of photos show a woman wearing a skirt or dress, and almost all have the women are wearing high heels. If you do the same search for males, you find a much bigger range of outfits, and more importantly, a bigger range of footwear.
In light of International Women's Day today (8th March 2017), and this debate resurfacing, I conducted some research myself to find out whether women feel that their dress code at their workplaces are any different to that of their male colleagues. When discussing this with my peers, many told me that much like at my workplace, there is set clothing all employees must wear, and after that the expectation is that you wear sensible and practical shoes. However, most of us have only ever worked in retail, where smart dress codes are rarely enforced. I took to Twitter to ask if people felt that their dress codes at their workplace were fair for both males and females.
An even split is not the result I was expecting. While it doesn't suggest a terrible imbalance, it does indicate that there is a problem within workplaces treating male and female dress codes separate. This is where issues such as the high heel debate form.
These dress code issues aren't just within the workplace, and they aren't just in the UK. It is known that many schools and colleges, especially in America, have sent girls home from school due to their clothes with ridiculous justifications: one of the main ones being visible bra straps due to tops with loose shoulders.
In many ways it could be argued that these dress code issues begin in school, and follow women through their lives. However, in the UK we have school uniforms, which prevent the risks of young people, especially women, wearing the 'wrong' thing to school.
Rachel Russell, head teacher of Yew Tree Primary School, says her dress code is "non gendering in terms of our uniform". When it comes to her pupils, she doesn't feel any need to worry so long as whatever is worn is in school colours. She also says she's happy for her pupils to go so far as to wear black trainers, as these are more affordable for parents.
Russell says uniform "makes us all one sort of family"
So, no gender bias among students. But what about her employees? Russell keeps the same belief, but does have some rules against inappropriate dress. Anything "unsafe, so open toed shoes, jeans, or low cut tops" are not allowed, as these have potential to cause harm if they get stuck on something, since working with young children requires a lot of activity. Apart from once having to ask a staff member to watch the length of her skirt after parent complaints, Russell stated that whether it's staff or student, "I don't have gender differences in my school".
Dress Codes and Gender Bias appear to be a cultural thing. While a UK head teacher is very relaxed, American teachers are extremely strict. Regardless of what your belief is, there's a long way to go before women can truly say they are equal to men in all aspects of life. That's why International Women's Day is so important; so we can acknowledge these issues and fix them.
By Kim Delaney.