Wolves in sheep’s clothing: discriminatory dress codes are symptomatic of a wider crisis in the workplace

 

By Ellen Davis-Walker

 

 

Social media and online media outlets have long been commenting on the story of Nicola Thorp, a receptionist who was sent home on her first day of a temporary job at PwC’s London office after she refused to wear high heels during her shift. Thorp’s subsequent decision to launch an online petition calling for the government changes to Dress Code Laws has been met with a somewhat contradictory range of responses. Whilst an evidently embarrassed PwC responded swiftly to Thorp’s demands and made “changes to the employee dress code policy with immediate effect”[1], critiques such as writer and columnist Grace Dent have been quick to brand the movement as an example of everything that is wrong with “millennial feminism”. In a recent article for the Independent, Dent expressed barely shielded contempt for what she considered be a “silly and hysterical sisterhood obsessed with signing petitions”.

 

What started as one woman’s attempt to change an unjust and inherently discriminatory dress code appears to have rapidly become a means to assess the credentials of contemporary feminism. As comment sections provide ample ground from which to rally the all-too-familiar cry of ‘feminazis’, we must remain conscious of how Thorp’s story fits in to the fragmented patchwork of women in the workplace. If heels, dresses and make up have been temporarily thrust in to the spotlight, it is important to remember that they are only a thin veil masking an underlying threat.

 

Whilst Dent, and indeed the majority of Thorp’s critiques, were unequivocally vocal in the expression of their contempt, they remained (wilfully?) blind to the wider scale of the problem. Whilst under current UK law, employers may have a policy that sets out a reasonable standard of dress and appearance for their organisation, the term “reasonable standard” is open to interpretation by each individual employer. Whilst any dress code should be non-discriminatory (and should apply to both men and women equally) standards can be, and are often, very different. The loaded nature of “different”, and the hidden implication that policy will have an unequal effect and impact on certain groups of people, should be key to how we approach both the debate about clothing and women’s employment more generally.
For women still remain “different” in the work place. Women working full-time in the UK are paid on average 17% less an hour than their male counterparts. In 2015 alone 30,000[2] women[3] were fired “for being pregnant”. 96% of executive directors of the UK's top hundred companies are men, and only 15% of parliamentary seats across the entire globe are held by women. If women have agreed to tolerate inherently discriminatory dress codes for long, it is perhaps because we are only too aware of our precarious placement in a work environment, all too conscious of the wolfish culture that still pervades UK employment culture, and the clothing codes that accompany it.

 

As Thorp’s experience aptly highlighted, if women are subject to an unequal set of aesthetic and behavioural codes than our experience of working life will follow a similar path. We will be forced to leave (as Thorp did), settle, or revise our expectations. According to Rake, Kherine and Lewis, 54% of women working part-time have been found to be ‘employed below their potential’, which amounts to 2.8 million women across the UK. Moreover, 54% of women in full time employment have identified negative stereotyping as the main barrier to advancing in the work place[4].

 

If Thorp’s experience teaches us anything it is that the current situation faced by women is not tenable. In order to be equal women cannot keep being seen and labelled (legally or otherwise) as different. We are different because we are perceived as a liability once we get pregnant, different because donning heels and make up apparently marks out a professional woman from a non-professional one. We are different because we accept a 17% pay cut and inherent discrimination on the part of employees. For so long as women remain “different”, questions of dress codes and a myriad of other forms of subtle discrimination will remain a pervasive part of our working cultures.

 

Whilst Dent and critics might condemn Thorp’s response as yet one more example of hysterical feminism, we cannot afford to dismiss any form of resistance that takes us a step closer to decisively triumphing over institutionalised “difference”. Until that day comes, wolves will continue to prowl in their inoffensively-smart sheep’s clothing, perhaps unaware of the fact that they are even real wolves at all.

 

 

 

[1] Source Guardian, January 2016

[2] Statistics cited from the Fawcett Society

[3] BBC News,

[4] Rake, Katherine and Lewis, Rowena (2009) Just Below the Surface: gender stereotyping, the silent barrier to equality in the modern workplace

 

 

 

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