Within the last 12 months we have seen a huge increase in the number of female politicians in the House of Commons and in our media. The image of women taking centre stage in British politics is not something that is familiar; Theresa May is only the second female Prime Minister we have ever had. And she is making a conscious effort to ensure her cabinet is representative of women as she has filled eight key positions with female politicians.
Looking at politics on a global scale, three of the world’s most powerful politicians are women: Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton are breaking down the glass ceiling in politics. But what does this mean for gender equality in business wear?
It is important for the UK economy for women and young girls to have role models in senior and powerful positions, to see women like May and Nicola Sturgeon, who have both managed to climb the political career ladder and achieve success. These accomplishments are driving the UK forward and eliminating prejudice in what has always been perceived as the ‘old boys club’.
Ultimately the female takeover of politics illustrates that the gender gap is narrowing. Although there is still a way to go, we are moving towards a positive improvement. Men still make up 70 per cent of MPs and we have only had 450 females MPs elected since parliament began, but recent advancements are a step in the right direction.
We are not just seeing improvements in women in politics, but it is promising for women in all industries, including STEM subjects and professional services. If we are able to continue to change the way the world views female leaders and make them more visible we can boost the aspirations of women and girls across the globe.
The creation of a feminine world stage will be beneficial for everyone; much like the benefits gained from building a diverse workforce. New data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics has gone as far as saying that businesses with women in leadership roles are more profitable that those without. If that is indeed the case perhaps this movement will be a welcomed boom, and just what the UK needs as we move towards a post-Brexit economy.
Most women would be outraged, but shockingly it seems to be a regular occurrence for many women in business, according to new research.
A recent survey conducted by law firm Slater and Gordon reported that 28 per cent of women have been advised that changing their appearance would be ‘better for business’, while 13 percent said they had decided to ‘flaunt more flesh’ at work, after suggestions by senior employees to ‘vamp up their appearance’.
On the other side of the argument, when Prime Minister Theresa May wore leopard print shoes she was criticised by many for trying too hard and making a statement. Some called on her to swap the heels for flat shoes to set a positive example and to demonstrate that women should not feel obliged to wear heels to work.
With this in mind, can employers legally enforce unreasonable dress codes at in the workplace? And what right do employees have to refute what is being dictated to them?
The answer is more complex than it might seem and ultimately is something only the courts can answer. To comply with UK legislation, employers may require certain standards of dress, and those standards can be different for both men and women, provided that the codes are equally stringent for both.
For example, employers could argue they are justified in telling women that are in customer-facing roles they must ‘dress up’, as long as the codes are equally stringent for men and women.
The requirement to wear high heels in the workplace has reportedly been discussed in Parliament after a petition filed by Nicola Thorp gained more than 20,000 signatures. Thorp was the centre of a media frenzy back in May 2016, when she took action against employers PwC after being sent home for refusing to wear high heels.
It is also interesting to note that a two-year dispute at British Airways recently ended with the company agreeing to allow female cabin staff to wear trousers at work as an alternative to skirts.
There are, in my opinion, four typical ‘types’ of dress code in business; business formal, business professional, business casual, and casual, and I would advise organisations to carefully consider the nature of their business and adopt one to suit.
At Sellick Partnership, our clients and candidates work within a corporate environment and we require our staff to dress accordingly, therefore we adopt a business formal approach.
However, organisations should to tread carefully when deciding what to dictate in a dress code to avoid causing offence. Asking women to ‘dress up’ for work and not having similar standards for their male counterparts is not allowed under current legislation, but it will not stop it happening.
The government and big brands therefore need to work together to help promote what is and is not allowed, and give employees an opportunity to speak up if they feel something is not right.
About the author
Jo Sellick is the managing director of recruitment specialist, Sellick Partnership.