In December 2015, Nicola Thorp turned up for her first day at work as a temporary receptionist at accountancy and professional services powerhouse pwc. Thorp, who was wearing a pair of smart flat shoes when she arrived at the firm’s Central London headquarters, was told by the agency who employed her that female staffers could not wear flat shoes.
Instead, Portico’s uniform policy stipulated that women must wear high heels between two and four inches in height. Thorp refused to comply with her bosses demands and was swiftly sent packing. She called the policy sexist and discriminatory but her argument fell on deaf ears.
That was, until, Thorp started an online petition entitled (rather aptly) “Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work.” The petition struck a chord and soon amassed more than 100,000 signatures – the way in which Thorp had been treated made headlines and lawmakers decided to open an inquiry to find out how these kind of uniform policies could be legal.
The resulting report was both vague and unclear. In guidance published by the Government Equalities Office last year, employers were told that dress policies for men and women “do not have to be identical, but standards imposed should be equivalent”. That’s a difficult and subjective test to make but when it comes to gender-specific requirements, the policy was somewhat clearer:
“Any requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful…assuming there is no equivalent requirement for men,” the guidance reads.
Yet many UK-based airlines have seemingly decided to wait for someone to test the law under the Equality Act 2010 – something that is both difficult and expensive for an employee to do. Some critics even claimed employers would knowingly flout the law because there was no incentive to change their policies until they were forced to do so.
Nearly a year after that report was published Virgin Atlantic has announced it will no longer require female cabin crew to wear makeup as part of its uniform policy. It’s a major but very welcome change that puts the airline ahead of any legal challenges.
Virgin says it had made the policy shift after “listening to the views of our people” and that also seems to be the route that rival airline, British Airways is going down. BA, which still requires female cabin crew to wear lipstick and blusher as a minimum, told us that “hundreds of our cabin crew are working with British designer Ozwald Boateng to create a stylish and professional new look to mark our centenary.”
Over 1,000 employees are being consulted on the new uniform and what a new grooming policy should look like. In the meantime, however, the airline may be breaking the law with its current rules.
Under the Equality Act, a staffer would have to prove their employer subjected them to either direct or indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination would happen when an employee is treated less favourably because of their gender – an employer can’t legally justify direct discrimination but they can argue indirect discrimination is necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.
If challenged, an airline would have to justify what “necessary” and “legitimate” aim they are trying to achieve by making female staff wear makeup, high heels or a skirt for example. As there are smart gender neutral equivalents which are capable of projecting the same professional image, it would be incredibly difficult for an airline (or any other business for that matter) to argue these policies are either necessary or legitimate.
For example, an airline could, as part of its grooming policy, require both male and female cabin crew to have smart manicured nails – it would be difficult, however, to justify why female cabin crew must paint their nails in a certain shade when there is no equivilant policy for male cabin crew.
Aer Lingus has already followed in Virgin’s footsteps to revoke its female makeup policy and more employers will hopefully see the light very soon. But Philip Hancock and Melissa Tyler, who are both Professor’s of Work and Organisation Studies at the University of Essex claim Virgin’s new makeup policy is “mostly concealer and gloss”.
“Reading between the lines, what Virgin wants is not for women to wear makeup, but to recruit women who want to wear makeup, and who aspire to embodying the corporate brand and its reified versions of feminine sexuality,” they claim in an opinion piece in The Conversation.
“Virgin is able to recruit only those people who want to embody the corporate brand, as it is narrowly defined yet ubiquitously, idealistically depicted. And as industry leaders, other airlines emulate this as an ideal to aspire to.”