When a female receptionist was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels she could not have imagined how her principled stance would grab the headlines.
Not only did Nicola Thorp blow the whistle on alleged sexism in the workplace, she sparked off a national debate every bit as intense as the row over Britain’s exit from the EU.
Her on-line petition garnered 150,000 signatures and caught the attention of the government. A joint report by two committees, entitled High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, found that the Equality Act 2010 is not being applied to protect workers over what they are required to wear.
The dispute divided opinion between those who believed it was wrong for employers to impose a ‘dress code’ and others who felt they should have the right to decide how staff should look.
The heels dispute, however, is just part of a conundrum that faces many workers – men as well as women – who often make choices for themselves and find it increasingly difficult to know what they should wear to meetings or around the office.
Is it appropriate to meet clients wearing jeans and a sweater? Or is a business suit mandatory in such circumstances? When is open-necked shirt preferable to a collar and tie?
One male executive at a top accountancy firm recently remarked: “I turned up at a client meeting in smart jeans and jacket because we had met that way on a previous occasion.
“But this time everyone apart from me was wearing a tie. I felt a little uncomfortable and as if they were looking disapprovingly at me. They probably weren’t, but next time I might just revert back to a suit and tie.”
Home-based Aberdeenshire lawyer Linsay Leslie worked for some of Scotland’s top practices and knows the pressures women in particular face to look the part.
“When I worked in law offices I would wear flats and keep pairs of heels under my desk for important meetings,” says Linsay who runs LGC Bid Associates and whose career took her to Shepherd + Wedderburn and McGrigors, now Pinsent Masons. She was also the bid manager for HBJ Gateley.
“We all tried to look like Ally McBeal because it was the way we were expected to dress. I will always make the effort to be smart, however, as impressions count for a lot.”
It’s long been the case that different industries have their own expectations. For the IT and technology community, chinos and sweatshirts have been the norm. However, this is now the case in firms where staff were until recently expected to dress as if going to a wedding.
Following the Nicola Thorp case PwC, like many other employers, has loosened up its dress code, going so far as allowing employees to wear jeans to work.
Indeed workwear provider Simon Jersey has carried out a survey of 2,000 employees and found that a third said their workplace had introduced a smart casual workwear policy, and 15% were working for companies that had gone completely casual.
The government is now in the process of developing guidance for employers in conjunction with Acas, the reconciliation service, the EHRC and the Health and Safety Executive.
Workplaces are increasingly being forced to follow fashion and to acknowledge that employees often perform better if they feel relaxed, which includes the clothes they wear.
Billy Kinnear has worked in further education for 17 years, a sector in which a uniform is not required. While some prefer the grunge look, Billy chooses sartorial elegance.
He is a curriculum and quality leader at College of the West’s Paisley campus, heading a creative department of 13 staff.
“Predominantly lecturers dress casually, it’s always been the same way but I like to take a pride in my appearance. I do think it goes hand in hand with the job,” he says.
Billy receives comments on his appearance on a daily basis.
“Just the other day a student asked me if there is any type of clothing I don’t look great in.
“There’s also an in-joke among the staff that even on staff training days when there are no students around I still dress smartly. Even the leadership team dresses down on those days, but I don’t.”
The dad of two girls said: “I have the most wardrobe space in the house and I live with three women. I love my clothes and have them in a converted attic space. I give lots of clothes away too as I am constantly buying more.”
He says that if the college was to implement a casual dress policy he would not be happy. “I don’t think I would do it. I would refuse.”
Sheenagh Gray is a woman in the predominately male profession of architecture. She is the director of Paisley-based Framed Estates which she established in 2012.
Sheenagh, a new mum of a five month old baby boy, previously worked for Young and Gault and then MacCarthy & Stone.
She designed the supporters’ club for St Mirren Football club and is involved in varied architectural projects as well as refurbishing properties.
“It has always been my attitude to dress for the job I want, not the job I’m in,” she says. “I think I heard that in an Oprah Winfrey show many years ago, and it stuck with me.
“I think there will always be a handful of people in the workplace who will scrutinise a woman’s capability, merely by how she dresses. I have learnt not to dwell on them, or their views. I would much rather work with and for people who judge me on my quality of work and professionalism, rather than what I wear.
“In the construction industry, where women are in the minority, I am often ‘suited & booted’ because I believe how I dress reflects how I run my business: smart, efficiently, professionally. I would like to think this would be my mentality if I were a man.
“I choose to glam myself up, but it doesn’t have to be a dress or skirts, it could be a trouser suit. I need to look professional and the client has to expect that my work will be professional.
“As a woman I’m aware that it’s probably easier for men to dress however they want.”
Health and safety is a big priority in her industry and that means wearing the appropriate clothing, including the obligatory hard hat.
“I love it. I thrive on construction sites but it must be said that the protective clothing is designed more with men in mind.
“Some days I look like two different people. Obviously it’s hard to look glamorous wearing big protective boots, but I try.”
Additional reporting by Terry Murden