A report by two parliamentary committees has called for a review of equality legislation, after a receptionist engaged by outsourcing firm Portico was sent home without pay when she refused to wear high heels while temping at PwC.
From what I could tell, the temp’s case consisted of three claims. The first was that wearing high heels was bad for her health. The second was that the rule was discriminatory, as her male colleagues were not required to wear high heel shoes. The third was that heels objectified women.
Let’s examine the health claim. After the temp spoke out, the internet was flooded with testimonials from women who stated that high heels were like “torture” and left them in “agony”. We are talking about two-inch heels, by the way, not Louboutin stilettos. I’ve seen orthopedic shoes with heels higher than that. I also checked the NHS guidelines, which state: “Ideally, you should wear shoes with a low to moderate heel that supports and cushions your arches and heels. Avoid wearing shoes with no heels.” Personally, I prefer bare feet, but well-fitting high heel shoes are no more uncomfortable than any other piece of clothing.
The second claim also lacks credibility. Apparently, the temp had suggested that, for the sake of equality, her male colleagues at PwC should wear heels too. This is just daft. When she reported to the PwC office on her first day, she was asked to change into a dress. She neither found that request demeaning, nor suggested that her male colleagues change into a dress as well. So why object to shoes?
If the male receptionists at PwC were allowed to wear t-shirts and baseball hats, that would have been discriminatory. Instead, they had to adhere to the same strict dress code: they wore a suit and tie and classic shoes. I don’t know a single man who likes to wear a tie, but I’ve yet to see one pressing discrimination charges on that basis.
And finally there is the third claim about sexualisation. When I was doing my first internship at the BBC bureau in New York in 1989, America was in the midst of a hard-core feminist wave, when women wore padded suits and buttoned blouses, because god forbid we would be regarded as sex objects. But nevertheless we all wore heels. Not because we secretly hoped to be objectified, but because heels gave us authority. They added grace to our posture and confidence to our step. They made us look elegant and business-like at the same time.
So please, can we get over this? Being asked to wear two-inch heels is not the same as being asked to wear a revealing dress. Heels are not oppressive, objectifying or hazardous to our health. They are not a symbol of male tyranny. They are not a violation of human rights. They are a dress code – and if you don’t like heels, there are plenty of jobs where they are not required.
Since the PwC incident, the temp has been called brave and courageous, a tireless campaigner for women’s rights. With the very real danger of ideological slogans being howled at me, can I say that all that the case did was make feminists look petty.
At the age of 15, Golda Meir ran away from home because her parents did not let her finish school and she wanted to study. It was 1913. Meir went on to become the first female Prime Minister of Israel. This is what courage looks like. Our temping receptionist, on the other hand, refused to wear shoes to work. Let’s not make her into a feminist icon.