Reaction to Female Politician's High Heels Exposes a Much Bigger Problem Women Face at Work

September 14th 2016

Almie Rose

Most workplaces have dress codes, or at least a loose guideline for how to dress appropriately, even if it's just "leave the sweatpants at home."

But even with the simplest of dress codes, it seems like women are always getting backlash for what they do or do not wear.

The U.K. recently took a step toward ending sexist dress codes, but in the process of doing so, highlighted another way in which women's workplace attire is unfairly scrutinized.

The battle over heels

At the Trades Union Congress in the UK, a motion was made to make "sexist dress codes which force women to wear high heels at work" illegal, reports Mashable. That's a good thing.

But Penny Robinson of the GMB trade union, which aims to improve conditions for British Trade Workers, is perhaps swinging the pendulum a little too far in the other direction. She told British Prime Minister Theresa May that she shouldn't wear high heels at all, the Independent reports (emphasis mine):

"Our new Prime Minister may be well known for her leopard print kitten heels, her leather boots and her Jimmy Choos, but if she really wants to advance the cause for women in the workplace there are two things she can do.

The first is to make a point of wearing pumps, flats and comfortable shoes for Cabinet, for PMQs and for meeting all those EU leaders.

Let the media see that you can be the most powerful woman in the country - maybe the second after Frances O'Grady (TUC general secretary) - without needing to wear designer shoes to meet men's expectations.

For once, set an example we can actually be proud of."

May's love of low-heeled, leopard print shoes is a subject of much fascination in the British press, and has been on the receiving end of a few sexist headlines as a result.

And though Robinson's comments may boil down to a labor leader taking a dig at a conservative prime minister, they do highlight the double bind professional women face.

Women don't wear heels solely to impress men.

There seems to be some confusion about why women wear high heels. Sometimes they wear them because of sexist dress codes, which is why this campaign against heels began. A London receptionist Nicola Thorp was dismissed from work because she was wearing flats. That's not okay.

But what also isn't okay is making assumptions about why women dress the way they do — and then telling them what to wear.

Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Soceity, the UK’s "leading gender equality and women’s rights charity," also supported the motion against dress code sexism but made this declaration as well:

"I don’t think we should be telling any women what to wear, including Theresa May."

And it isn't solely about shoes.

The recent no makeup movement is a great thing — but women who decide to wear makeup aren't terrible, vain, or "needing to meet men's expectations" for doing so. Some women just like to wear makeup.

To quote Alicia Keys the de facto leader of #nomakeup, who said on Today, "I think the most important thing is you do what feels good for you."