A 27-year-old woman was sent home by her bosses in a City firm for refusing to wear heels to work. She says that she was expected to do a nine-hour shift on her feet escorting clients which she would not be able to do in heels. Her displeasure at the unspoken rule is understandable, but is it really fair to say that banning heels completely is sexist?
In a mother-versus-daughter fight my argument is simple. I don’t work in a corporate sphere and I think it would be ridiculous to have to wear heels to my part-time job, besides I find the clunky awkward shoes highly uncomfortable. However, my mother – Anna – does work in an office and has some firm words on why heels are important in the workplace.
She said: “We don’t have rules about heels, but most women who want to look good wear heels. Some people wear high heels, some people whose feet hurt wear little heels.”
“I think heels give you a smart look, they give you a more woman-like walk. You look taller, you look slimmer, and you behave like you’re on a stage. It’s not like it’s an everyday casual thing because when you’re with clients you need to be the face of the firm. You need to act as if you’re on a stage in everything you do. In the way you look, in your mannerisms and heels add to that.”
The office is a special workplace where rules of appropriate social decorum still apply. It is a professional environment in which, if someone wants to get ahead, the unspoken dress-code rules need to be adhered to. Anna points out that there is no set standard for heel height, at least in her office, and that, for the sake of comfort, heel height can be moderated by the wearer.
Heels make a woman womanly and add to her confidence. If the metaphor of the woman at work being a performer is followed through on, then heels can be seen as part of the performer’s repertoire. She wants to impress, she wants to progress in her career, so she has to look the part.
An office job is not a manual labour job and expecting a little class, a little extra effort, is not unreasonable. Anna continued by saying: “The office is a very competitive place where you want to be successful. So if you are refusing to put in a little effort into the way you look – to follow this unspoken rule – then you are not progressing and it will also be unspoken that some of this [lack of progress] is related to you not making the effort to present yourself nicely. You’re shooting yourself in the foot by being rebellious for no reason.”
There’s the love of heels, but then there is also the respect for what they symbolise in the workplace. If employees refuse to follow the dress-code expectations of their workplace then that can indeed backfire because it may be viewed, by the employer, as stubbornness or, worse off, laziness on the employee’s part.
It is true that the overall system needs to change. The fact that these unspoken rules even exist may seem outdated in our 21st century workplace, but not everything moves with the times, and while certain expectations still exist it may be wise to choose to follow them for your own gain.
Then again it depends on the workplace. If employees are expected to be constantly on the move throughout a full-time shift then that’s a game changer, as Anna points out.
“I used to work in Harrods and we had an eight hour shift and we were not allowed to sit. So you’re standing for eight hours on your feet, you’re walking around, you’re going to the stock room, you’re helping customers. You spend the whole day on your feet. There, heels were policy. You had to wear high heels and the higher the better.”
An eight hour shift on your feet day in, day out. Now that’s a nightmare. The policy on heels, whether unspoken or enforced, should depend on the type of workplace.
Anna’s love of heels does not just span into her professional life, but also dominates her personal life. She tells me that all her pairs of shoes are heels and that she genuinely enjoys wearing them everywhere. She recently bought one pair of flats to go grocery shopping, but even then she does not always wear them as wearing shoes that are too flat feels uncomfortable and she’d prefer to be on a platform. Even her home slippers have a bit of a heel.
The office, though, is a professional place in which a love of heels really helps. It is not an action-packed place where everyone is always on the move, maybe following certain dress codes does make sense.
“In an office job you will be sitting most of the time,” she said. “You can say hello, walk to the office and everyone will be seated. It’s not like you’re wearing heels for eight hours or ten hours. You can wear comfortable heels in the office.”