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U.K. lawmakers urge employers to stop forcing women to wear heels at work

Nicola Thorp was told in December, 2015, that her shoes were unacceptable for a temporary assignment in London with finance firm PwC.

Tim Ireland/AP

In a debate that has gone from office corridors to Britain's Parliament, lawmakers put their foot down Monday and urged 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 reflects growing pressure on companies to scrap 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.

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"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 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimetres) 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She started an online petition, calling formal workplace dress codes "outdated and sexist."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 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. "And it's only because some women spoke up about that and said, 'We feel like we have a right to wear trousers,' that that's changed."

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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."

The College of Podiatry told the committee that women who wear high heels for long periods have "reduced balance, reduced ankle flexion and weaker muscle power in the calf" and are prone to disabling pain.

Jones said that "women told us that when they raised these concerns they were belittled." One was told "she'd have plenty of time to rest her feet when she was unemployed."

The committee urged the government to enforce existing laws against discrimination and impose higher fines on companies that break the rules.

In London's financial district on Monday, many workers felt that companies were entitled to impose dress codes — but that mandatory high heels went too far.

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"A lot of things are enforced, but high heels in particular — because that can also be a health issue for people — I think that's unnecessary," said company director Penelope Mantzaris.

Banker Dan Matthews said his company expected men to wear suits and ties "and I think that's a fair request."

"So I suppose it's fairly contradictory in a way, because in one respect I'm saying that we men should be required to wear a suit and tie but women shouldn't wear high heels," he said. "But I think that's just where the line happens to be at the moment."

Thorp's petition has already caused one change. Portico announced last year it was amending its policy to adopt a gender-neutral dress code and to allow workers to wear flat shoes if they prefer.

Caroline Dinenage, the government's undersecretary of state for women, told lawmakers that Britain had "strong laws to tackle sex discrimination at work," but they needed to be more widely understood and better enforced.

"Dressed in heels or flats, we are collectively putting our foot down," she promised.

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