Recently a female employee of a temping agency was told to wear high heels to work. She refused, raising the issue on social media and creating a furore. Now the employee in question, Nicola Thorp, has launched a petition to have government outlaw such dress codes on the grounds that they are sexist.
At the risk of making a “straw-woman” of the case, the argument seems to be that wearing heels is painful and the requirement to wear them is only imposed for aesthetics reasons; reasons which are incidental to the successful performance of the employee’s duties. As such conditions are not applied equally to men; this represents a form of workplace sexism.
Such an attitude is wrong on several counts. The first point is that, besides wearing high heels, both sexes do a number of things which are damaging to their health for money.
Work may be unpleasant but employers are rational
To some degree, most of us are prepared to sacrifice our health for our work. For example, coal miners experience “black lung” and silicosis; construction workers risk accidents and even office workers experience back and neck problems from sitting at a computer all day. And that’s before psychological illnesses such as stress or depression are factored in. Foot pain – and specifically foot pain due to high heels – is a very small part of that overall picture. In fact, if feminists wished to count, they’d note that male workplace fatalities outnumber women 10 to 1. Therefore to suggest that women alone are being required to sacrifice their health for work is disingenuous. Some people endure far worse than sore feet.
This being so, the logical reply is that requiring women to wear heels is still sexist since, unlike many of the travails that men face, this is solely to make women look better and is not functional.
This too is wrong. Firstly, there are many female employers and it seems madness to accuse them of sexism against their own gender. Rather, the reason that employers – both male and female – are prepared to pay extra for a woman to wear heels is that it looks professional, and employers are concerned about their image. Now it may be that in the future we look back at heels the way we look upon the Jacobean Ruff; but for the moment, we consider that high heels make a woman look smarter. And having a dress code which requires an employee – man or woman – to look smart is not sexist. In professional services, it’s just good business.
Furthermore; even if it were sexist, there would still be no reason to ban it.
If two employers offer a woman the same money for the same job but only one requires heels, then it seems reasonable to assume that woman would choose the least painful option. To persuade her to wear heels this woman would need to be offered more money to compensate for the inconvenience. As such, insisting that women wear heels would seem to be a costly decision, and any employer who does so unnecessarily will face a financial burden. Therefore it seems redundant to ban employers from imposing unnecessary dress codes – the market already penalises them for doing so.
May the force be with you
So the argument that there is some form of cruel, debilitating sexism at work has been refuted. Yet Miss Thorp is also wrong on another count: the assertion that women are “forced” to wear high heels. In the words of the flexibly-principled business secretary Sajid Javid on 15 May 2016:
“No woman should be forced to wear high heels. Responsible employers shouldn’t need the law to tell them that.”
For the benefit of Mr Javid and anyone else labouring under this misapprehension, let me be clear: No one is being forced. Threatening someone with unemployment is not force. An employment contract is a voluntary exchange – you do x, I’ll give you y (in this case wear heels and answer phones and say “good morning” in exchange for money). If both parties do not agree it’s not force, it’s just not a contract.
The mere fact that Miss Thorp was able to decline to wear the heels is clear evidence that she was not forced. She was made an offer of money in exchange for wearing and doing certain things and she declined. She was not forced any more than I am forced to buy grapes from Tesco. If I don’t offer them enough money, they won’t agree. If they don’t offer me nice grapes at a decent price, I won’t agree. In a free society – and on this point at least, Britain remains a reasonably free society – no-one is forced to do anything.
As stated above, People take risks with their health (and pride) for money; whether it be wearing high heels, wearing a monkey costume, cleaning toilets or working in mines. Each of these acts is voluntary. No one is coerced.
Of course, some will say that she has no choice but to accept the terms or face unemployment and poverty. However this highlights the contradiction by outlining her choice. She can decline to work under those conditions. Their objection, I infer, is not that she is being actually forced but that she does not like the choice with which she is faced. We all face similarly unpleasant choices sometimes, but they do not amount to coercion.
If Miss Thorp’s petition was actually about slavery, It’d have my sympathy. But it isn’t. It’s about someone not agreeing to a contractual term and, rather than being a grown-up and negotiating or politely declining in search of a more attractive proposition, they run crying to the press and try to get the government to intervene.
The irony, of course, is that no-one seems to mind the government getting involved in this: After all, if you really want to see force, try not paying your taxes. Then you’ll see what being “forced” to do something really looks like.