A sexist dress code brought to heel by one woman

When Nicola Thorpe turned up for her first day's work as a receptionist at PwC's global headquarters in London, she was sent home without pay for wearing the wrong shoes.

The problem, according to managers from the staffing agency Portico - which supplies workers to the professional services firm - was that Ms Thorpe's footwear was flat. She then refused to go out and buy the heels that are part of the agency's dress code: between 5cm and 10cm.

To be fair, some employment lawyers say this kind of dress code is not illegal as long as men and women have to meet a similar level of "smartness". Men can be required to wear a jacket and tie, for example, even when women are not.

Faced with all the negative publicity, and a complaint from PwC, Portico announced that it was changing its policy. But one has to wonder about the purpose of the requirement in the first place. Did Portico think it was supplying waitresses to Hooters?

A sexualised dress code might be deemed appropriate for a casual restaurant chain that advertises with pictures of scantily clad waitresses and describes itself as "delightfully tacky yet unrefined". (I confess I am not a fan. But at least the place is honest about what it offers.) In fact, while Hooters waitresses are required to sport low-cut T-shirts and hot pants, even they are allowed to wear trainers. Long hours on their feet carrying huge trays would make uncomfortable footwear an impractical addition to the uniform.

Here at the Financial Times, the newsroom includes women in ballet flats and 10cm spikes, while men don anything from brightly coloured running shoes to old-fashioned Oxford brogues. I have my own rule that I totter around on high heels only when wearing a dress that would look out of place in the office.

Whatever your personal preference, a heels requirement certainly has no place in the lobby of a consulting firm that regularly bangs on about the need for diversity and even sponsors a blog about equality issues called The Gender Agenda.

PwC argues, in a letter sent to those who complained through its website, that Portico's policy is "industry standard". The firm notes that many of its own female employees wear flats "because of the high mobility required by many of our roles". So highly educated PwC accountants and consultants, who could obviously seek employment elsewhere, have a choice and can avoid the pain that goes with wearing high heels. How enlightened. But when PwC hired Portico to staff its lobby, the management either did not care about, or did not bother to look at, the rules the agency imposes on its receptionists.

Though the heels requirement has been scrapped, Portico's dress code for women still specifies that a minimum of five different types of cosmetics must be worn "at all times and regularly re-applied". It also regulates acceptable colours of nail polish (plum is OK but green is not) and lays down rules for tights (black for darker skin tones and "natural" for everyone else).

The company also bans stubble, bright-coloured hair dye and ponytails for men, but in general the rules for women are far more prescriptive. The whole thing puts me in mind of 1950s airline stewardesses or geisha entertainers in Japan, who used to wear their own brand of uncomfortable footwear - wooden sandals balanced on tiny stilts.

Dress codes that force female staff to be decorative are particularly outdated at a time when companies are being urged to boost the ranks of women on their boards. No wonder more than 100,000 people have already signed Ms Thorpe's petition asking Parliament to intervene. Women are sick and tired of being told to toe the line.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'A sexist dress code brought to heel by one woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe