It is usual for an employer to require its employees to comply with a certain dress code in the workplace. This can be with the legitimate aim of portraying a professional image or because of health and safety requirements. The courts have repeatedly held this is acceptable except where there is no legitimate aim for the dress code in question.
It is often argued that a requirement to wear high heels amounts to sex discrimination because a man would not be required to wear high heels for the same reason and the requirement that a woman should, results in less favourable treatment on the grounds of sex.
The law however states that having different requirements for men and women in a dress code (such as the requirement for women to wear heels) will not amount to sex discrimination where the dress code applies a conventional standard of appearance and taken as a whole, rather than item by item, neither gender is treated less favourably in enforcing that principle.
At the same time however a dress code should not be more onerous for one gender and should be enforced consistently against men and women. Consequently a dress code may be more onerous and result in less favourable treatment in the case of comfort or health and safety reasons.
A requirement for men to have hair "not below shirt-collar length" (which does not apply to female employees) will usually be lawful in the context of a dress code as a whole. Similarly, a requirement for men to wear a shirt and tie but women only to dress appropriately and to a similar standard will not be considered to be unlawful discrimination provided that an even-handed approach is applied in the context of the dress code overall
On the other hand, a requirement for a woman to wear a low-cut top or short skirt will usually amount to discrimination on the basis that a man would not have been required to wear an equivalent uniform.
The debate about heels in the workplace will inevitably continue and we will wait to see with interest what the new guidance on workplace dress codes will look like in the summer.
Employers can force women to wear high heels as Government rejects campaign to ban the practice