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Forcing High Heels on the Job

British Columbia Amends Law to Prohibit Employers from Forcing High Heels on the Job

Until very recently, some companies in British Columbia were legally permitted to force women to wear high heels at work. Not anymore. A recent amendment to the Canadian province’s 1996 Workers Compensation Act has outlawed the practice in an effort to ensure that workplace footwear is of “optimum safety to the employee,” with factors including slipping, tripping, potential for musculoskeletal injury and temperature extremes all taken into account.

The premier of the province, Christy Clark, announced the amendment on Friday, stating: “In some workplaces in our province, women are required to wear high heels on the job. Like most British Columbians, our government thinks this is wrong.” She continued on to note that the high heel requirement was “dangerous and discriminatory” and that “there is a risk of physical injury from slipping or falling, as well as possible damage to the feet, legs and back from prolonged wearing of high heels while at work.”

The province’s labor minister, Shirley Bond, echoed this noting, saying: “I expect employers to recognize this very clear signal that forcing someone to wear high heels at work is unacceptable.” The amendment comes a month after 25 restaurant chains in Ontario stopped forcing female employees to wear heels and short skirts as part of their uniform.

Law in the UK

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, British Parliament members recently reviewed legislation in connection with “sexist workplace dress codes,” including jobs that require women to wear high heels after receptionist Nicola Thorp launched a petition, asking Parliament to review such legislation.

The petition, which Thorp started after she was sent home for work on more than one occasion for refusing to wear shoes with a 2- to 4-inch heel, surpassed the requirement of 100,000-signatures, which are needed before Parliament will consider a petition for debate. "There is no written statutory law that deals with dress codes per se," Anna Birtwistle, a partner at employment firm CM Murray in London told Fortune last year.

Employers generally have the right to enforce dress codes at work if it represents a "reasonable request," she told Fortune. Whether or not a dress code is discriminatory against women or other protected classes depends entirely by court-made law in the UK, and such determinations are based entirely on how a certain dress code relates to a worker's ability to do his/her specific job.

In connection with Thorp's petition, British MPs said that laws banning sexist dress codes at work must be more readily enforced. "The government has said that the dress code imposed on Thorp was unlawful—but the Committees heard that requirements for women to wear high heels at work remain widespread," the parliamentary committees for Petitions and for Women and Equalities said in a joint response in January.

Helen Jones, chair of the Petitions Committee, said: "It's not enough for the law to be clear in principle—it must also work in practice. The government has said that the way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay."

In the United States

Finally in the U.S., it is not illegal to require women to wear heels on the job, per say. While on-the-job uniform requirements are permissible, they will likely afoul of the law if there are specific policies that segregate garments and accessories requirements based on gender. Federal law in the U.S., including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, allows for different rules depending on an individual's gender as long as the policies do not burden men or women unequally or constitute discrimination on the basis of sex stereotype.

In New York, in particular, the New York City Commission on Human Rights announced new guidelines last year that expressly prohibited “enforcing dress codes, uniforms, and grooming standards that impose different requirements based on sex or gender.” As noted by the New York Times' Vanessa Friedman, this means that "no employer may require men to wear ties unless they also require women to wear ties, or ask that heels be worn unless both sexes have to wear them. And though this applies only to 'official' dress codes, the trickle-down effect is inevitable."

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