Our last blog celebrated the progress that continues to be made in equality, but who would have thought our words would be so timely! Yes, of course we’re referring to “heelgate.” Doesn’t it seem unbelievable that in 2016 a woman could be sent home from work (unpaid) for not wearing high heels? In case you were under a rock last week and missed it, this is exactly what happened to London temp receptionist, Nicola Thorp. What’s more worrying is that this isn’t an isolated incident but one that points to a bigger issue concerning outdated, sexist dress codes, and debilitating double standards in the workplace. So, this week we want to acknowledge the hidden pressures on women even in our more progressive workplace environments.

It’s no secret that getting the smart, professional look right is a balancing act that takes great skill – and is more serious for some than you might think. Sadly, the question of whether women are at work to do a job or be looked at is still up for discussion in certain work environments. When Nicola asked for a reason why wearing flats would impair her ability to do her job (escorting clients to meeting rooms over a nine-hour shift), she was not given an answer. When she asked if her male colleagues were expected to do the same, she was laughed at then sent home.

This episode is not about a woman’s choice to wear heels or not, but the enforcement of a debilitating and sexist ideal – maybe not fetishised ideas about sexy secretaries in fishnet tights and stiletto heels a la 2002 film, Secretary – but certainly the Mad Men agency era of the 1960s still hangs in the air like stale smoke, imposing and projecting itself onto women with a powerful (and podiatrically sadistic) male gaze. In Nicola’s case, having shared her experience on Facebook, she realised that many other women have experienced similar situations, prompting her to launch a petition calling for the law to be changed – so that companies can no longer impose high heels on women in the workplace.

 Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world

Let’s be clear, this post isn’t about arguing for a no-heels policy. Heels are useful tools with aesthetic advantages; desirable towers of power that can lengthen the leg and flatter the gown. And quite frankly, some trousers only ‘puddle’ correctly (fash term, thank you) with the aid of a six inch heel. As Marilyn Monroe once said, “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” The positive psychological effects of the right shoe (especially combined with the right hair) suggest she was probably right.

Yet one woman’s passionate embrace of heels may be another’s patriarchal oppression. There is nothing wrong with wanting to step out with your feet firmly and flat on the ground. Equality is not about sweeping condemnation, it is about choice. Because women aren’t just women, just as men aren’t just men, they’re individuals – and, by definition, individuals are all different.

Who knew that getting ready for work was about dodging a veritable minefield of disasters just waiting to happen?

Even in more progressive workplace environments, successful businesswomen are (privately) grappling with what clothing is appropriate Vs. what looks good Vs. what conveys the right impression. Trying to strike the right balance between looking professional but not too formal, conservative but not uptight, casual but not untidy – well it’s not easy, particularly when every item of your clothing, from the height of your heels to the length of your skirt, may inadvertently send a message that you didn’t intend. Who knew that getting ready for work was about dodging a veritable minefield of disasters just waiting to happen? In high pressure environments, wearing the wrong skirt can simultaneously explode your confidence, whilst shattering your credibility and sense of emotional and psychological safety. Sounds dramatic? For those trying to get ahead in male-dominated work environments, it can be.

A long history of sexualisation and objectification isn’t sown into the seams of a suit in quite the same way

There is an unspoken pressure on women that men simply cannot understand, given that a long history of sexualisation and objectification isn’t sown into the seams of a suit in quite the same way. Traditionally, men don’t have the same plethora of dress choices in the wardrobe, but similarly, their appearance is not scrutinised and judged to the same extent as their female counterparts. Men have a simpler deal because the business suit is already a symbol of professionalism, authority and power. And a suit doesn’t generally detract from what they are saying, hence you won’t find many self help books on how men should dress for success.

Of course women can adopt a feminine adaptation of this standard uniform in the hope that they will be taken more seriously. Research by telecommunications firm O2, suggests that the need for women to look or act like men is partly to blame for the lack of female role models at the top. The implication here is that dressing in a conventionally feminine way will somehow undermine a woman’s intellectual and professional skills. Turn the issue on its head too – doesn’t the ‘power trouser suit’ also prompt some interesting critical assumptions?

We’re playing the long game with the slow pace of gender equality in the workplace, but that doesn’t stop us examining and attacking the root cause; the often unconscious bias about the way a woman (or a man) should or shouldn’t look. A focus on physical appearance not only trivialises accomplishments, but also reinforces the message that value resides in looks, not ability. And as last week’s response to “heelgate” demonstrates, this is still much too commonplace for comfort.

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