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OPINION

Women should not be forced to wear high heels at work, says study  

Will the government listen now?

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By Zoë Beaty on

First women said it. Then some MPs said it, to no avail. Now an extensive study is saying that women must not be forced to wear high heels at work, prompting renewed calls for the government to take action.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Aberdeen has reignited the debate over high heels in the workplace, after the review found a “huge” amount of “evidence showing heels are bad for individuals’ health” – namely that heels are linked to injury, bunions and, of course, pain (no surprise there, then). The paper, they concluded, should “put pressure on lawmakers to toughen up legislation so that no one is forced against their will to wear them in the workplace or in licensed public social venues”.

The study comes after MPs rejected proposals for a law banning women being forced to wear high heels at work as recently as April this year. The issue hit national headlines when Nicola Thorp set up a petition in May 2016, and debate intensified. She was sent home from her temping job at the Big Four accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), because she wasn’t wearing high heeled shoes. More than 150,000 people signed the petition in support of her – so why did the government reject the law?

When choice is taken away, it becomes worrying problematic – not only from a physical health perspective, as this study found, but for the way women are viewed at work

The authors of this latest study have their own ideas. Writing in The Sunday Herald, Dr Maxwell Barnish, of the University of Aberdeen, who is the lead author of the report, said that the government’s response to Thorp’s protest put the needs of those at the top of business above the rights of workers. At the time they said that there was no need to change the law, because Thorp was already protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010.

But the Act failed to give Thorp adequate protection when she was sent home from work without pay that day in May last year. As such, the Conservative party – “the party of the employer, the party of the capitalist economy” – Barnish said, refused to act perhaps because they were trying “not to impose too much on employers”. “... Maybe they are focusing too much on the employers’ rights rather than employees’ rights,” he wrote.

And the implications of this issue are far-reaching. This latest study also considered the positive effects of wearing heels and found not that women commanded more respect, or are more likely to be taken seriously, but simply that men and women find women in heels more attractive due to a “number of complex cultural and social reasons”. They also found that heels will influence a man’s behaviour to women’s benefit: men more likely to help a woman wearing heels, or do them a favour, academics said.

Quite obviously this is, as Barnish points out, “old-fashioned” and “culturally bound”, and encourages an environment in which women are more often valued for their looks over their ability. Being forced to wear heels by an employer, then, appears to not only encourage, but curate this type of environment. And that’s the crux – women, of course, should be able to choose whether to wear heels, or lipstick, or whatever they see fit. 

But when choice is taken away, it becomes worrying problematic – not only from a physical health perspective, as this study found, but for the way women are viewed at work. The question now is, is the government listening?

@zoe_beaty

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UK news
women at work
gender equality

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