Nearly one in ten women have been told by bosses they preferred them to wear high heels whilst in the office or with clients, because it made them “more appealing”. I was saddened to hear these new findings which suggest that attitudes towards appearance are as archaic as ever. HR is heavily dominated by women and this recent report might cause some sparks of fury when we learn that almost 90% of women felt pressured to dress “sexier” and had duly complied fearing that their career might suffer. So should we just put up, dress up and shut up?

The new study commissioned by employment law experts Slater and Gordon, who surveyed 2,000 employees, following a rise in the number of clients referencing comments made by their employers about their appearance, report that large numbers of women feel their employer has unfairly criticised their appearance in the workplace, with nearly one in five (19%) saying they felt more attention was paid to their appearance by their bosses than to their male peers.

Just over a quarter, 28% of women said that bosses had gone as far as suggesting that they change their appearance, arguing it would be “better for business”, while another third were told that clients expected a certain style of dress.

Understandably this has had an impact on how women view the levels of respect they gain at work and their chances of being promoted. One in ten reported that they felt belittled, with a large number, 34% admitting that comments about their appearance had been made in public or in front of more junior colleagues.

Specific comments included being told to wear more make up by their boss so they looked “prettier” (10%).

Josephine Van Lierop, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said: “The findings of this survey are very disappointing but not surprising. There are still far too many employers who think it is acceptable to make disparaging remarks or comments about a woman’s appearance. This sort of sexism is all too prevalent in the workplace – particularly in certain sectors such as financial services, hospitality and The City.

“The current position on dress codes under UK employment law is relatively clear: an employer is allowed to impose a dress code on its employees. But usually this will be put in place for health and safety reasons, or to promote a particular image, for example, of smartness and efficiency.

“A dress code must not be discriminatory on protected grounds such as gender or religious belief, and disabled employees have the right to have adjustments made to alleviate disadvantage.”

So why is it still happening and does this mean that sex discrimination laws are not working? Van Lierop says that imposing expectations on women in business to wear make-up or high heels is arguably unlawful sex discrimination. What is of concern is that in many of these instances remarks and references towards appearance go unreported for fear of further bullying or damaging a career. Many don’t want to be the whistle blower and continue to suffer in silence.

The findings come just months after the House of Commons launched an inquiry into high heels and workplace dress codes after Nicola Thorp collected almost 150,000 signatures calling for a ban on employers being able to force women to wear heels at work after she was told to go out and buy a pair of heeled shoes when she turned up to work at the London office of accountants PwC in flat black shoes.

So what’s HR’s role in clamping down on derogatory comments about women’s appearance at work and how can HR ensure a quiet campaign of snide remarks regarding clothes and looks doesn’t wind up at an Employment Tribunal? Are you outraged or unsurprised by these findings? Please let us know.

By Annie Hayes, HR freelance writer and expert.

Global Lingo supports Human Resource departments during grievance and disciplinary meetings and business restructurings. Working with Financial Institutions, Intergovernmental organisations and global Companies we provide specialist Minute-Takers for on-site or remote attendance delivering a detailed and accurate account of confidential and sensitive meetings.