Sometimes I see an issue pop up in the news and think ‘oh God I can’t be bothered,’ and this week’s discussion about women wearing high heels at work was almost one of them. But then I remembered something an old boss said to me, and the bile rose in my throat so I thought: fuck it. I’m doing this. I’m going to state the massively obvious.
Making women wear high heels at work is a fucking awful, sexist, bullshit, tedious thing to do. It belongs in a bin somewhere back in the 1950s. If you have a ‘dress code’ – official or unofficial – at your workplace that requires any member of staff to wear ridiculously painful footwear that isn’t directly relevant to their job, then you are an arse.
What’s more, heels are generally a gendered thing. Although there are reports of workplaces sending women home if they’re not wearing heels, I’ve never seen men told to don a pair of Louboutins or fuck off down to the dole office. There are gendered workplace dress codes that affect men too: compulsory ties, anyone? It’s bollocks. All of it’s bollocks.
But there I go stating the obvious.
Unofficial dress codes
Part of the problem, I think, comes from the fact that so many of these dress codes are ‘unofficial.’ Rarely is it explicitly stated the way it would be on a school uniform checklist: men must wear ties, women must wear heels. It’s usually handed down in coded language like ‘smart’, then followed up by managers who have personal preferences/opinions/biases on these things. While it’s all very well us pointing to the Equality Act and saying ‘companies should be fined if they have dress codes that tell women to wear heels at work’, mostly these ‘dress codes’ are policed via informal chats and individual assumptions.
Onto the story I wanted to tell you.
When I first moved to London, nearly ten years ago, I accepted the very first job that was offered to me. I was desperate to be here (and out of my parents’ house), and no one had yet offered me a tonne of money to sit on my arse writing about sex. So I took a sales job. God it was awful – AWFUL. As awful as you’d expect a sales job to be, but with the added fun of a senior manager who had his arse (and ideas) planted firmly in the late 1970s.
Over the course of my time there he picked me up on a number of egregious workplace misdemeanours I’d committed, including ‘wearing a tank top’, ‘having a boyfriend’ and ‘eating crisps at lunchtime.’ He was a grade-A bellend, whose bullshit I swallowed because I needed the fucking money.
Anyway. He is just the backdrop to this. All he had done was lay the groundwork for what actually happened. What happened was that my line manager (one rung below Arsehole Prick Boss on the corporate ladder) pulled me into a meeting room one day. We’d had a meeting the day before, during which I’d been pretty excellent. I’d managed to persuade a client to stay with us, or I’d upsold them something, or I’d left them with a general sense that hiring us was the best corporate decision they’d made since Apple invented the iPod – something along those lines. I’d done well. Naturally I thought she was taking me to one side for a pat on the head, but no.
“The meeting yesterday,” she began. I nodded and smiled, ready to bat away her compliments with ‘ah, all in a day’s work mate.’ Then she put on her angry face.
“I know you’re used to being casual, but you really need to make more of an effort in meetings.”
“You looked incredibly scruffy, and it gives a really bad impression.”
“You were wearing trousers,” she began, “and they’re too big for you. But more importantly, you weren’t wearing any make-up.”
Back then, I rarely – if ever – wore make-up. Even if I was going out, I’d draw on some lopsided eyeliner in the toilet of a pub and pretend I’d made an effort. Make-up was not, for me, a vital part of any outfit, let alone one in which all I’d be doing was sitting opposite strangers and telling them to buy our shit.
But the decree had come down: make-up. She kindly made the concession that if I had no external meetings in any given day, I wouldn’t have to wear make-up for those. But if we were going out to see people, I had to wear make-up. Because it was ‘smart.’ I also had to buy some new smart trousers, because mine were too baggy because oh sorry boss I am fucking POOR and I do not have the money to spend on trousers I’m mostly going to be wearing BELOW A DESK THAT NO ONE CAN SEE.
So yeah. I’m stating the obvious: women shouldn’t be made to wear heels at work. Hooray for me, you probably agree, let’s all knit a jumper and congratulate ourselves on changing the world.
Except while we almost certainly do all agree that gendered dress codes are a bullshit thing, we probably all still have ideas in our head about what counts as ‘smart.’ Likely many of us will still instinctively conflate ‘smart’ and ‘pretty’ for women – seeing attributes like heels and make-up as important aspects of a ‘professional’ uniform. For men, ties perform a similar purpose, and while they’re not quite as uncomfortable as six-inch heels, they are still a massive pain in the neck.
And even though I am writing this down here, even I probably still make knee-jerk assumptions about someone’s worthiness or professionalism based on gender markers that have been defined and honed by generations of people like my Original Arsehole Prick Boss. Many of us do still ascribe to dress codes at social events that exclude people based on a number of different factors. And there are clearly still people – like my line manager – who will unthinkingly accept those things and then pass them on, because that’s just the way things are done around here.
So yeah, it’s a tedious issue to bang on about. There are definitely more important things. But I wanted to get that story out of my system, even if it means stating the boring obvious.