As more and more people return to the workplace in person, there’s a lot to be unenthusiastic about – micromanaging bosses, hellish commutes, that one colleague you just can’t stand. There’s also the bane of women in the workplace: heels.
Women have long bemoaned the unfair and sexist norms that require many of us to wear heels at the office – from the physical discomfort of having to work in stilettos for hours, to the misogynistic tropes that get projected on to women who wear high heels, especially in male-dominated spaces.
Finally, though, there’s new research to validate those experiences. To find out how heels really affect women’s careers, University of North Carolina professor Sreedhari Desai and her team conducted a series of studies looking at how people evaluated women in a variety of work settings. These scenarios included leading a class, giving a presentation, interviewing for a job, and taking part in a negotiation, with the only variable being whether the woman was wearing high heels or flats.
The results? Women wearing flats were deemed more capable and prepared, and earned higher evaluations from both men and women in their 20s through their 50s.
There’s truly no winning. On the one hand, women working in corporate jobs, retail and the hospitality industry are often required to wear heels as part of their dress code. It’s a norm that’s built on centuries of dressing women according to the male gaze, and forcing them to subscribe to misogynistic standards of femininity. But, as the study proves, women in heels are also taken far less seriously at work than women who wear flats.
Even outside the workplace, the choice to wear high heels continues to be loaded with cultural and political baggage. Women are simultaneously sexualized, thought of as powerful, and dismissed – all based on how we choose to protect our feet from the elements. And for as long as women have known that they were being treated differently because of the kind of shoes they wear, questions of gender discrimination based on clothing have been dismissed as inane and superficial.
Desai is right when she describes her research into heels as “a keyhole … through which we can examine the broader issue of how gender inequality is created or re-created and maintained over time in organizations”. Heels can work to both highlight and deepen workplace gender inequities, and are just one of the many ways that women at work are stripped of agency over their own bodies.
In a now infamous 2016 example, London-based Nicola Thorp was sent home without pay from her job at PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to wear two- to four-inch heels in compliance with the company’s dress code for female employees. The incident sparked outrage across the globe, and reignited conversations about gender-based dress codes and how harmful they can be.
PwC has since changed its policy, but the legacy of that incident coupled with research like Desai’s is crucial – not only because they affirm what women have always known anecdotally, but because they help provide a starting point for how to actually deal with this issue at a systemic level.
Thorp’s case led to a British House of Commons petition that would make it illegal to require women to wear heels to work, and in recent years governments around the world are taking a hard second look at what employers have been allowed to enforce when it comes to dress codes.
So does this mean the days of high heels at work are finally coming to an end? Well, it’s clear the tide is already shifting. And as the pandemic gives us more and more reasons to reckon with the nature of our relationship to work, we can look forward to the day when women can show up to work and be assessed on the merit of their work, not how they were dressed that day.