Should employers be more aware of dress code discrimination in the workplace?

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‘Wear more make-up’, ‘Put heels on’ and ‘Straighten your curly hair’, are just some of the discriminatory comments flying about in the media recently; all true comments made by employers to their employees in the workplace.

MPs feel that laws must be tougher over dress code discrimination and two Commons committees have called for a review of current equality legislation after gathering evidence of sexist instructions issued to hundreds of female employees, but not to their male colleagues. Some areas of contention have been around women being told to wear make-up or high heels. Despite Theresa May declaring that current equality laws are adequate, I personally feel that the Equalities Act 2010 is not sufficient in protecting workers against either indirect or direct discrimination.

Many people seem to forget however that discrimination also works for the opposite gender. For example, it’s acceptable for women to wear suit skirts without tights in summer, but would be unthinkable for men to come in wearing tailored shorts, consequently slanting the discrimination towards men as they are not receiving equal treatment to their female colleagues.  

An employer's dress code must not be discriminatory in respect of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010, including age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, or sexual orientation. It is, however, imperative that the employer ensures the workplace hosts suitable working conditions in different situations – for example ensuring there is adequate ventilation and air-conditioning in the summer months and heating in winter.  

Some employers may have to set certain dress code rules due to Health & Safety reasons, which is acceptable. I don’t think a female site manager would appreciate teetering around site with 4-inch heels on!

Another issue raised by MPs expressed concern that gender-specific dress codes reinforce stereotypes, which could make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers feel uncomfortable at work. 

In essence, it seems that employers need to be more aware of discriminating against the protected characteristics when setting a company dress code. They must approach the subject sensitively and consider the risk of claims, should they be too specific without a genuine reason to do so, such as Health and Safety. 

Kelly Shoebridge

Managing Consultant  
Specialisms: Business Support, Executive
Tel: 01622 236954
 
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