Nearly 20,000 people in Japan have signed a petition calling for an end to work dress codes which make wearing heels mandatory for women. The campaign is just one of several worldwide efforts over the last several years to undo arcane rules which require women to work in shoes which are uncomfortable, impede their performance at work, and can even be dangerous.
A Japanese government minister went so far as to say Wednesday that heels are “occupationally necessary and appropriate.” In fairness, he appears to be doing a sub-par job without them.
I have mixed feelings about heels at work. A decent metal spike under your feet can feel powerful, almost warrior-like. As a relatively short person (I’m 5 feet, 3 inches tall), I can testify that heels can be a genuine asset when trying to assert authority. They’re often the difference between looking up at a boss who already infantilizes you or looking them in the eye. I’ve been called a “girl” by bosses for years who never referred to my male colleagues of the same age as “boys,” and I’m certain this was in part because I am physically small.
But wearing heels is also fraught with complicating factors. They mildly incapacitate you. They make you swing your hips and walk more slowly and can play into irritating Mad Men-esque stereotypes of being a woman in an office, or Sex and the City tropes of sinking whole paychecks into the cost of designer shoes.
Tall women who are obliged to wear heels at the office tower over everyone, which is cool, but not necessarily every wearer’s first choice.
Too often, how to dress becomes a toss-up between being taken seriously as an adult woman or objectified as one.
The professional histories of my friends, acquaintances and people who responded when I asked about this on social media are rich with stories of heel-related woe. Many of these were purely physical. Several who had worked as waitresses in recent years recalled that compulsory heels made the manual work significantly harder – in one instance, to the point that an ice bucket was provided for the female staff to soak their feet in after the shift. She was quick to point out that this was an inclusive bucket – “men were allowed to use it too!”
Compromises aren’t only health-related. A friend told me that when she worked as an agency waitress, to take the (better-paid) option of hostess shifts, women had to wear high heels – which weren’t provided by the company – for the 12-hour shifts. She declined.
The implications for spending a lot of time on your feet in heels are serious. It takes an average of one hour, six minutes, and 48 seconds for feet in high heels to start hurting feet and legs. They can cause bunions, back problems, ankle sprains and tight calves.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham has published research showing that high heel-related injuries in the US had doubled over the preceding decade, with emergency rooms treating 123,355 people for them.
Despite the obvious physical risks involved, laws vary widely when it comes to employee dress codes. In 2017, the Canadian province of British Columbia amended the workplace act to make it illegal for employers to require women to wear heels, calling them a threat to employee health and safety. But the situation in many places is far less clear-cut.
Earlier this year, Norwegian Air drew heavy criticism for requiring female cabin crew to carry a doctor’s note if they wanted to wear flat shoes. A 2016 petition to change British law was rejected, despite employers frequently discriminating against women. And in the US, where “separate but equal” remains the prevailing norm, much tends to depend on the individual policy of the employer.
Even when there is no dress code, there is an unofficial assumption that women will wear them in many jobs. A former legal secretary in London told me that when she didn’t wear heels, her boss would complain behind her back that she looked “frumpy” and “dressed like an old woman.”
The conflicting associations we have with heels, that they are smart, sexy, superficial, femme, or powerful, have all been projected onto them by people. Unless you’re in a working environment where heels impede your performance, or are stupidly risky, the choice between heels or no heels should be up to the wearer, whatever their gender. If anyone takes issue with or makes assumptions based on that, that’s not the shoe-wearer’s problem.
For my welcome lunch during the first week of a new job several years ago, I wore a smart skirt, heels and some makeup. I figured it was a superficial demonstration of effort-making which might be appreciated early on.
As my new, male boss sat down to this lunch attended by myself and 10 other men, he remarked: “Well Holly, you can bring a little glamor to this bunch!” It was well-meant, but for me at least, it set a weird, mildly archaic tone. It felt like my effort to be taken seriously had been interpreted as frivolous. My boss didn’t highlight any of my professional experience, or comment on anything else I might have to offer, during that lunch. I don’t wear heels for anyone besides myself, now.