High Heel Petition Goes to New Heights for Flats

The British Parliament debated a petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work on March 6, 2017.

The petition, which received more than 152,000 signatures, was created by Nicola Thorp after she was she was sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels between 2 and 4 inches high while at work.

“If women are forced to bear pain all day at work or put up with what is a toxic working environment, then we don’t have equality,” MP Helen Jones told lawmakers during the petition’s debate in Parliament. “What began for us—what we thought would be a nice, limited inquiry, has exposed a whole number of issues in the workplace which are going to need further study and further action by the government.”

Thorp’s petition calls for the government to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work saying, “it’s still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear formal flat shoes at work if they wish.”

During the debate, MP Gill Furniss said her daughter had been injured with a metatarsal fracture while on-the-job after her employer’s work policy had forced her to wear high heels at work. Furniss her daughter “couldn’t walk” after the injury, but was denied sick pay or compensation by the retail company, which Furniss would not name.

Parliament debated the petition just two days before International Women’s Day. Members of Parliament said it was perfect timing, especially given the United Nation’s theme this year: Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030.

“This is not just not about shoes,” MP Caroline Dinenage told lawmakers during the debate, “it’s way bigger than that. It’s about how people are treated in the workplace,” she said. 

After receiving the petition with the 100,000 signatures necessary for a response in June, the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee launched an investigation into the issue. The committee published a report in January, which determined that the existing laws protecting workers from discrimination are ineffective.

The investigation also identified the issue as a matter of safety and health that puts women at risk. The report highlighted expert research on the health impacts of wearing high heels for extended periods of time. “We heard that employers sometimes failed to take workers’ pain seriously,” the report says.

The College of Podiatry provided Parliament with a report outlining the evidence of foot pain, bunions (hallux valgus), painful skin lesions, lower limb pathology, falls and subsequent injury associated with wearing high heels to “inform the debate surrounding the potential change in law about mandatory footwear policies for women that could harm them and others around them.”

According to the College of Podiatry, 90% of women had self-reported foot problems in 2013. According to their research, women complain of foot pain after an average of 1 hour, 6 minutes and 48 seconds of wearing ill-fit high heel shoes and one-fifth of women say their feet hurt after 10 minutes’ of wear.

“It seems that it is not obvious to employers that they should routinely be assessing requirements to wear high heels,” the report says. The investigation found evidence that “many employers simply were not thinking about the risks of high heels in their health and safety risk assessments.” General workplace risk assessments do not go into detail about footwear, and when they do, they tend to focus on PPE, Azmat Mohammed of the Institute of Directors and Scarlet Harris of the Trades Union Congress told the committee.

The committees ran a web forum June 8-15 in which members of the public shared their experiences of workplace dress codes. “In just one week, we received 730 responses,” the report says, which provided “compelling anecdotal evidence about employers’ treatment of female workers suffering from foot problems.” The report features a podiatrist’s comments from the forum:

I have on a number of occasions been consulted by women who had biomechanical foot problems or injuries and who were still required by their employers to wear high heels at work. The footwear they were required to wear by their employers both exacerbated their problems and limited the effectiveness of treatment. This meant that the physically debilitating foot problem they had would either be prolonged into the medium term, or the inappropriate footwear could even cause long term damage.

After reviewing scientific literature from the U.K. and U.S., the report concluded there is “a direct causative relationship between wearing high heels for extended periods of time.” Doing so, the report says, creates a health risk for:

  • long-term changes to gait, which has a causative link to knee, hip and spine problems and osteoarthritis; stress fractures in foot bones from sustained body weight on the ball of the foot;
  • Morton’s neuroma—a condition caused by foot bones pressing against the nerves in the foot over a sustained period, which causes constant pain. In our web forum, one sufferer described the sensation “as if you are walking on bruises and glass particles at the same time”;
  • ankle sprains, fractures and breakages due to trips and accidents;
  • hallux valgus (bunions);
  • blisters and skin lesions; 
  • enduring balance problems that persist into old age. 

A video of the debate is archived online for public viewing. Parliament is expected to publish its response within two months of the debate.

In the U.S., an estimated 123,355 high-heel-related injuries occurred from 2002 to 2012, a 10-year study from the University of Alabama and the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons found. A total of 3,294 high-heel related injuries were treated in emergency rooms during the 10-year span, the researchers found using data from Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

A 2015 study by the European Foot and Ankle Society used questionnaires and radiographs of women ages 40 to 66, 95 of which had worn high-heeled shoes at work for at least 5 years and 102 had never work high-heeled shoes to work. Between the two groups of women, the researchers found no statistically significant differences in anatomical foot deformations, but a higher prevalence of foot pain and calluses among the women who wore high heels.

However, the researchers reported that the women who had worn high heels at work for at least 5 years had more calluses and also “suffered more pain than the controls in the lesser toes and the mid-foot.” The researchers said this could be because wearing high-heeled shoes flexes the MTP joins and may cause painful tension in the plantar fascia.

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