What Century Is It, Again?

13/06/2016 § Leave a comment



It’s taken me ages to get around to writing this post. I think I had some internal resistance to the need to comment on something so manifestly stupid and so crassly and unthinkingly sexist that it really shouldn’t be happening in the 21st Century, but is.


A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. The final article – the fluff piece that is usually taken up by something to do with pandas or puppies – was given over to “fashion.” It was the news story about Nicola Thorpe, the receptionist who was sent home from work by Portico, the agency contracted by Price Waterhouse Coopers to supply front of house staff at PwC offices, for refusing to wear high heels.


When the BBC producer telephoned me the day before and asked me to take part, I was categorical that this was not a fashion story. It is a question of gender politics. The interviewer, John Humphries, included this idea in his introduction, which was scripted, but otherwise spent my entire time in the studio staring at and questioning me on my choice of footwear, which suggests that he’s a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.


Despite John Humphries’ apparent confusion about the politics of pointy shoes, the idea under discussion, that woman should have to wear heels to work, is manifestly absurd – so much so that when the story broke a whole host a spoof videos were produced, pretty much overnight, of men wearing heels for a day to show how impractical, how uncomfortable, how painful, and how sexist, it is. There’s one here from Stylist magazine, for instance, and a home-made one from a Swedish floor fitter called Emil Andersson Meanwhile, the comedian Russell Kane comprehensively took the heels-to-work rule down in a matter of seconds in his sketch on the subject


The agency that employed the receptionist backed down under the combined pressure of a PR disaster and a quiet but unequivocal word from their client, PwC, and the heels rule was set aside. Nevertheless, the hapless receptionist, undaunted by her flat-shoed unemployment, started a petition to make it illegal to compel women to wear heels. I’m no lawyer, but this must surely be covered under UK sex discrimination legislation, in the form of The Equalities Act 2010. Since 2002, schools have been legally obliged to allow girls to wear trousers, and more recently there are schools that have rewritten their dress codes to make them gender neutral, so that boys can wear skirts, too, if they want to.


But while schools are on board with gender politics and clothing, employers, dealing with adults, apparently are not. A recent article in The Guardian invited readers to write in with their own experiences of sexist dress codes at work, and what a sorry state of affairs the world of employment is, if even half of these stories are true.


We should be quite clear about two things. Firstly, clothing is not inherently gendered. If anything is gendered, it is people’s thinking. And people who think clothing is inherently gendered should really think again, and a bit harder. Secondly, employers can have whatever dress code they like, but it should pertain to the job, and not to the gender of the person doing the job. Other social fields – professional and social events, like film festivals (hi Cannes ) nightclubs, and all the rest – can likewise have dress codes if they wish, but they should pertain to the event, location, activity, etc, and not the gender of attendees. Men and women and everyone in between can wear whatever footwear, or clothing, they wish.


This is not rocket science, but it appears that a breathtakingly high number of people still need this spelling out to them. If you’re reading this, don’t be one of them. It’s embarrassing for everyone.


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