To mark International Women’s Day, British Columbia Green Party Leader and MLA Andrew Weaver introduced a bill Wednesday that would ban dress codes that require women to wear high heels in restaurants — or any other workplace.
Weaver said a Tyee series on sexism in the restaurant industry by Rachel Sanders was brought to his attention last month.
“I was dumbfounded that in British Columbia, employers could actually dictate that staff members have to wear high heels,” said Weaver, whose daughter has worked in the restaurant industry. “This is 2017.
“This surely has got to be easy to fix,” he said. “This is a form of discrimination.”
Weaver proposed a bill designed to “prevent employers from setting varying footwear and other requirements based on gender, gender expression or gender identity.” In other words, he said, no more sexist requirements for women to wear high heels in restaurants.
Weaver isn’t alone in taking on the issue. In the U.K., lawmakers debated a ban on requiring high heels in the workplace earlier this week, in response to a petition started by a receptionist who said her employer required her hair have “no visible roots,” her makeup be “regularly re-applied” and her heels be between two and four inches.
And in Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Commission announced that some progress had been made since it released a 30-page report on discriminatory dress codes last year — and encouraged certain companies to make sure anti-discrimination policies are being implemented on the ground.
Here in B.C., six out of eight women who spoke with The Tyee for last month’s series reported that dress codes requiring high-heeled shoes were causing problems in their workplaces.
As one woman put it, “I would ask to take the heels off. Like, ‘My feet are bleeding, can I please put on my flats?’” Her requests, she said, were not heard.
Another woman recalled that at one downtown Vancouver restaurant, she was required to wear two-inch heels, which she said put her at risk of falling on slippery laminate floors, “so everyone would see what you were wearing underneath your skirt.”
This problem isn’t unique to B.C. According to a policy position released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, “sex-based dress codes undermine women’s dignity and may make them more vulnerable to sexual harassment from other staff, customers and management.”
This statement came as the Commission conducted an inquiry after current or former restaurant staff raised concerns — whether in the media, through petitions, on social media, by holding events, or through making human rights and workplace safety complaints.
‘An immediate health and safety risk’
Weaver said he commends any action that reduces gender-based discrimination, but is cautious about who should bear the responsibility to bring these issues to the forefront of the conversation.
To Weaver, bringing forward a human rights complaint or starting a media campaign is a daunting task — and a lot of work for already stretched-thin restaurant staff.
“Why would we put the onus on the employee to do this?” asked Weaver. “It’s difficult for people to complain when they’re trying to make ends meet.”
His bill, he said, could eliminate sexist dress codes right away. Though it will be difficult to pass. With the legislature session expected to end next week, the bill will be among dozens of private members’ bills unlikely to be called for debate.
Weaver is clear that he isn’t against women — or anyone — wearing high heels if they so choose. The problem, he said, is when one type of footwear is required for a particular gender group.
With the passage of his bill, he said, “an employer could require that all — all — employees in the restaurant have to wear high heels. All the cooks, managers, busboys and waiters. Everybody’s got to wear high heels. We all know this would last about one day.”
Weaver is concerned that requiring high heels for certain gender groups isn’t only an issue of discrimination, but is dangerous as well. Working long hours wearing high heels can lead to back and foot problems, he said.
“This is an immediate health and safety risk,” he said, saying it can be addressed immediately, with the stroke of a pen.
Weaver acknowledges that wage disparity and differential minimum wage rules, like the reduced minimum wage for liquor servers, are also issues, but is not planning to introduce legislation on these topics in the immediate future. Addressing discriminatory dress codes is his focus for the time being, he said.
“This is absolutely a no-brainer,” he said, and noted that he is receiving nothing but positive feedback about the bill on social media since it was introduced.
“I’ve got 100 per cent positive feedback on this,” he said. “I could talk about puppies and I’m still not getting 100 per cent positive feedback.”
Weaver is certain a lot of British Columbians aren’t aware that sexist dress codes are allowed in the provinces, and is hopeful that this bill will gain support across the legislature. “I would expect and hope that the government will do this now.”