Nicola Thorp

High heels – they’re one of the world’s great dividers. Yes, they look good, but any woman who has had to wear them for a long period of time (or short, for that matter) knows how uncomfortable they can be. Despite this, in supposedly developed countries like the UK and Canada, it’s legal for companies to uphold outdated and sexist policies that force women to wear high heels at work.

Nicola Thorp found this out the hard way, in an incident better suited to an episode of Mad Men than the 21st century.  After showing up for her first day as a temporary receptionist at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in London, she was told to change into a pair of two to four inch heels. When she refused, she was sent home immediately without pay. Outraged, she publicized the situation on Facebook, before launching a petition asking the British Government to make it illegal for companies to force women to wear high-heeled shoes. The campaign now has over 100,000 signatures, which means Parliament will consider it for debate. Of the incident Thorp stated, “I expressed my confusion as to why [I was being turned away from work], and they explained that flat shoes are not part of their dress code for women. The supervisor told me that I would be sent home without pay unless I went to the shop and bought a pair of two to four inch heels. I refused and was sent home. I said ‘If you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job today, then fair enough,’ but they couldn’t.'” When Thorp pointed out that men were allowed to wear flats in the office, she was laughed at.

Since the incident, Portico, PWC’s outsourced reception firm and Thorp’s employers, have now changed their policy. But this still doesn’t excuse how she was treated, or the fact that many industries also hold women to sexist dress codes. Speaking of the double standards women face in the work place, Thorp explained, “I think dress codes should reflect society and nowadays women can be smart and formal and wear flat shoes. Aside from the debilitating factor, it’s the sexism issue. I think companies shouldn’t be forcing that on their female employees.’”

Thorp’s campaign has clearly struck a nerve with modern females, with women all over the world now tweeting tongue-in-cheek messages of support, including British politician and Labour MP Stella Creasy. The fact that Thorp was laughed at when she pointed out that male colleagues do not suffer discrimination over heeled footwear not only exposes the deeply ingrained systematic sexism in business culture, but also demonstrates that women have to get attention on a national (or in this case, international) level to be taken seriously.

Nicola Gavins took this picture of her friend’s bloodied feet after she wore high heels for a whole shift at Joey’s Restaurant in Edmonton, Canada.

Forcing women to wear heels isn’t just misogynist, it’s also a health issue, as a Facebook post by make-up artist Nicola Gavins recently proved. After wearing high heels for her entire shift as a waitress at Joey’s Restaurant in Edmonton, Canada, the feet of Gavins’ friend (who remains nameless) were not only covered in blood, but she also lost a toenail. Horrified, Gavins shared a picture of her pal’s red-raw feet on social media, criticizing the chain for making it mandatory that its female staff wear shoes with a heel. Unbelievably, Gavins’ friend was told that despite her discomfort, she’d be required to wear heels on her shift the next day. Joey’s Restaurants has now come forward, saying it was “upset” by the post and that they talked to the employee in question. Joey’s stated, ‘There is no minimum height when it comes to our shoe policy. Shoes range from black dress flats, wedges and heels. For those employees wearing heels, we require the heel height to be no higher than 2.5’.’ Bloody feet are not the only health issue caused by high heels, as one commenter pointed out, “It is absolutely disgusting and sexist to force women to wear high heels. They are bad for your feet, bad for your back, bad for your tendons and calf muscles.” There is also another unsightly and painful side effect to the prolific wearing of heels – bunions!

A decade ago the paparazzi would never have caught Victoria Beckham in flats. Now she is often pictured wearing sensible shoes.

Even ultra glam celebs like Victoria Beckham are not immune. The fashion-icon was known for her six inch heels during her Spice Girls days, before her painful bunions forced her into more sensible footwear. At best, a bunion can look a bit strange, but at worst it can develop into arthritis, or even a bursa – a condition that can force the toes to cross over, making it difficult to walk. Surely that’ll affect a girl’s ability to work more than wearing flat shoes! As heels are forcing the foot into an unnatural and unstable position, they can also cause damage to the ankles if worn over a long period of time, and eventually this nerve damage causes further problems in the legs and back. Studies have found that when wearing heels, the muscles around the ankles have to constantly contract to keep you upright, and sooner or later this changes the muscles in your legs forever, with prolonged muscles in the front and shortening behind. Not pleasant.

So, can companies in the USA force their female employees to wear heels as part of a dress code? The answer isn’t straightforward, but it’s a definite possibility. Although the required garments for male and females don’t have to match, the same level of smartness must be maintained. Therefore, a company could argue that flats are not as smart as heels on women, despite how untrue that may be, and perhaps get away with forcing its female staff to wear high heels.

However, this is becoming less likely, with more and more women challenging gender norms in the workplace. In recent years there have been cases of female employees fighting against gender-specific dress codes that say they should wear make-up, get regular manicures, or get their done in a certain way, non of which apply to their male counterparts. As a rule of thumb, in the U.S companies can’t legally ask more of one gender than the other, and women can fight back against them by proving how much more burdensome these beauty rules can be.

With stylish alternatives to high heeled shoes now readily available, the days of suffering for style are nearing an end. So are the days when women are willing to take crap from their employers, as the outpouring of support for both Miss Thorp and Miss Gavins show. We may have a long road to walk when it comes to fighting sexism in the workplace, but we’re determined to take the necessary steps forward in the footwear of our choosing.

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