Great news out of London this week, just in time for International Women’s Day: Parliament has instructed British employers to stop requiring women to wear high heels as part of corporate dress codes.
Yes this is news this week. In 2017.
The Associated Press reports that Parliament debated a ban on mandatory high heels in response to a petition started by a receptionist (not a CEO, naturally) who was sent home without pay for wearing flats.
Nicola Thorp’s temp agency’s dress code specified female workers must wear “non-opaque tights, have hair with no visible roots, wear regularly re-applied make-up and wear shoes with a heel between two and four inches high.”
“Regularly reapplied make-up.” God help you if someone saw your cheeks without a fake blush. If some of your actual face was showing.
Testimony to Parliament, which occurred after Thorp’s petition gathered more than 150,000 signatures, included tales from women forced to wear heels until their feet bled, or until they couldn’t walk.
Those dress codes were presumably crafted long ago by (male) business leaders who have either never worn high heels or have only worn them for short periods of fun time in the privacy of their own homes, and therefore have little or no idea how utterly ridiculous they feel and how physically painful they can be to spend significant time in.
The testimonials went beyond high heel tales, including stories of women working in retail being instructed to unbutton their shirts over the holidays to increase sales, women made to dye their hair blond, wear nail polish or apply more makeup.
Such sexism is preposterous, beyond old-fashioned. Being required to wear something you don’t want to wear that you find terribly uncomfortable or else you don’t get paid? In an office environment? Having some jackass legally allowed to pester you to go put on more eyeshadow?
Who had any idea a country so advanced, so successful and sophisticated, was still subjecting women to such demeaning, archaic double standards? Oh, lots of women, in lots of successful and sophisticated countries, probably had some idea.
I knew a woman in San Francisco, a little older than me, who was an analyst at Montgomery Securities. She was a legend of sorts in the industry for leading a successful drive within her company giving women the freedom to wear pants. Until her efforts, women were required to wear skirts or dresses. In California, in the 1980s.
I met her in the 90s, when I was temping in the financial industry at a different company, wearing my Banana Republic slacks, flats, no makeup if I wasn’t in the mood. I laughed and marveled at her stories, already taking the advances for granted.
It is incredibly easy to forget what came before, how recently things were different.
When my mom was in the workplace in the 60s, women could legally be fired for getting pregnant. Women needed their husband’s written permission for birth control. So if you didn’t have a husband but you wanted to have sex without getting pregnant, uh, good luck with that. Unequal pay was openly accepted, with the understanding that men needed more money because they were men.
Picture trying to plan a family, a career, an autonomous life, with someone else controlling those decisions, denying your agency and your contributions. In many areas and to varying degrees it was the norm in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ times, and remains the norm today in far too much of the world.
We despair over the plight of women in developing and oppressed countries – a vast ocean of a topic that is its own category of tragedy. But it can be hard to believe things can still be quite awful for some women closer to home. More awful than they’ve ever been for you personally. More awful than you’ve seen. There’s an urge borne of fear to believe it’s basically all behind us now, that our daughters won’t have those problems to worry about.
Those of us fortunate enough to live and work in educated, progressive communities, who don’t know any Nicola Thorps, might lull ourselves into thinking we’ve made so much progress we should be satisfied, at least for now.
Make no mistake, our daughters will have problems related to the mere fact of their being female.
The news from London reminds us there are women everywhere who still have it pretty bad – and the lower those women are on the socioeconomic totem pole, the worse they have it.
And the news from Russia offers reminders as well, that things don’t just move toward enlightenment and improvement; sometimes they get worse. Perhaps you read about the bill Putin signed last month reducing punishment for domestic violence. Quite a message that sends. We can hit you. You have no power of recourse.
It’s not all in the past. It’s now. We haven’t come anywhere near far enough, and it’s not over.