Is a change in attitude needed when it comes to employer dress code discrimination?

A parliamentary enquiry was launched recently surrounding workplace attire and so-called ‘dress code discrimination’, after a number of female employees claimed they received unfair treatment when compared to their male counterparts. But experts are now questioning whether legislation is enough, or is an entire shift in attitude needed amongst employers to really make a difference?


A petition was initially raised by Nicola Thorp, receptionist and agency worker, who was sent home from work after refusing to swap her flat shoes for heels. The petition was soon inundated with numerous ‘troubling’ examples of apparent discriminatory behaviour against other female workers. During the enquiry, female staff told of their requirements to wear make-up, change their hairstyle or wear a particular style of skirt, with the final conclusions revealing the existing law is not fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work.


The subsequent report from the parliamentary committee for women and equalities went on to recommend that a new legal framework was required, preventing women being forced to adopt significantly more stringent standards of dress than their male colleagues. It went on to suggest that any business guilty of dress code discrimination should be obliged to compensate employees and urged a prominent publicity campaign that made it clear to employers just what their legal obligation is.


However, while they agree that more needs to be done to protect employees, some employment lawyers disagree with the notion that the law needs updating. For example Tim Forer, barrister at Blake Morgan claims that “The Equality Act 2010 is already a wide-ranging piece of legislation, but like any law it must be applied and enforced properly,” he said. “The more the law is applied correctly and enforced, the more effective it becomes.”


Whereas many more believe that it is not legislation, but attitudes, that need changing. Jessica Williams, founder of recruitment agency Sidekicks, emphasised the importance of public accountability over law. She went on to say that implementing new legislation without a significant change in attitude can “breed resentment and doesn't fix the issues at hand”.


Whatever the method, with research revealing that 81% of managers witnessed gender discrimination in the workplace last year, it is clear that active steps need to be taken by both parliament and employers to tackle the issue.