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High-heel dress codes under fire in Britain

By JILL LAWLESS Associated Press

LONDON -- In a debate that has gone from office corridors to Britain's Parliament, lawmakers put their foot down Monday and told employers to stop making women wear high heels as part of corporate dress codes.

Members of Parliament debated a ban on mandatory workplace high heels, in response to a petition started by a receptionist who was sent home without pay for wearing flat shoes. The debate was non-binding, but the government promised to act against heel-height rules, makeup guidelines and other corporate codes that apply to women but not to men.

Labour lawmaker Helen Jones, who helped lead a parliamentary investigation into dress codes, said she and her colleagues were shocked by what they found.

"We found attitudes that belonged more -- I was going to say in the 1950s, but probably the 1850s would be more accurate, than in the 21st century," she told lawmakers at Parliament's Westminster Hall.

Monday's debate was triggered by the experience of Nicola Thorp, who was told in December 2015 that her smart flat shoes were unacceptable for a temporary assignment in London with finance firm PwC.

Her employment agency, Portico, had a dress code specifying that female workers must wear non-opaque tights, have hair with "no visible roots," wear "regularly re-applied" makeup -- and appear in shoes with a heel between 2 and 4 inches high. For Thorp, that was a step too far.

She started an online petition, calling formal workplace dress codes "outdated and sexist." It has gathered more than 150,000 signatures, making it eligible for a debate in Parliament.

Thorp told the BBC after she launched the petition that "dress codes should reflect society."

"Twenty years ago, women weren't allowed to wear trousers in the same role that I'm doing now," she said.

The British government says the law already forbids companies from discriminating against women, but a report from Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee found that "discriminatory dress codes" remain commonplace in sectors including the retail and tourism industries.

The committee said it had heard from hundreds of women "who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply makeup."

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