Social Affairs: Dawn Purvis hits out at sexist dress codes

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By Una Murphy

Dawn Purvis, above, knows all about dress codes.

As a Stormont politician for more than four years, and then in a high-profile role as programme director of Northern Ireland’s Marie Stopes clinic, she has been in the public eye for many years. Sitting in her new office in her new role as chief executive of Victoria Housing Estates (VHE), a social housing charity based in Holywood, Co Down, she said she was appalled at “oppressive” sexism dress codes which some women have to deal with in order to stay in work.

Some women are being ordered to wear high heels, make-up or revealing outfits at work in England.

MPs said these “troubling” cases of sexism were evidence the Equalities Act of 2010 (which does not apply to Northern Ireland) is not adequate.

Dawn urged women to contact the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland if they have any concerns about being forced to adopt sexist dress codes here.

“It is sexualising women and saying they are sexual objects and they must dress accordingly,” she said.

Two House of Commons committees have called for tougher equality legislation after gathering evidence of sexist rules on dress codes issued to female but not male workers. In England, the story of sexist dress codes made recent headlines when Nicola Thorp reported for work in flat shoes as a receptionist in London at PwC accountancy firm. She was sent home without pay after refusing to buy a pair of shoes with two-inch to four-inch heels. She was employed as a temporary worker by PwC’s outsourced reception firm Portico, which has now said it will review its guidelines for staff uniforms

MPs on the Women and Equalities and Petitions committees asked women to contact them after Nicola launched a petition calling for the law to be changed so companies can no longer force women to wear high heels to work.

The MPs said they were sent many examples of “troubling” sexist dress codes and said equality legislation was not protecting workers.

“It is oppressive, women should be allowed to dress any way they want. If a woman doesn’t want to wear high heels, because wearing these shoes can lead to problems such as lower back pain, they should not be forced to,” Dawn said.

“When I heard about this story, at first I was wondering if I was living in the right century,” she added. “I was so shocked by this case but I was encouraged by the number of people who have said this is not right in this day and age.”

Back in her days in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Dawn said that it was a male politician, Barry McEIduff, the Sinn Fein MLA from Tyrone, who had challenged the dress code for men, which had entailed wearing a jacket and tie, and has been since been relaxed.

Dawn added there were no requirements for women to dress in a certain style, “none that I was aware of”, but she usually wore a black jacket, top and trousers, which her sons labelled her “work uniform”.

“For me, it wasn’t about having a style, it was more about wearing clothes which were functional and I didn’t have to think too much about it.”

Dawn said there were “outrageous” comments in the media on the “style” of women candidates in last year’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Clothes, she added should be “business-like” as well as “comfortable and smart”, and with that final comment she got back to the business of running Victoria Housing Estates.

• To see the online version of our equality issue of VIEW, go to http://eepurl.com/cDo47P

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