City Weekend

Kick off the stilettos and stand tall without the heels: the fight for dress code equality in workplace

As the UK considers whether it is discriminatory for companies to demand female employees wear high heels, City Weekend examines whether Hong Kong is at similar risk of workplace dress code sexism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 11:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 April, 2017, 5:28pm

Kwong Ho-yin is a trailblazer for female equality in Hong Kong.

In 2007, she resigned just two months into her teaching job at the Hong Kong Chinese Women’s Club Fung Yiu King Memorial Secondary School after being bullied by colleagues for refusing to wear a skirt instead of trousers. In 2010, her case was taken up by the Equal Opportunities Commission and she eventually won an apology and an undisclosed sum in an out of court settlement. The case remains the only one of its kind in Hong Kong to reach public attention, but campaigners fear there could be others suffering similar dress code discrimination who are too afraid to speak out.

The Association for the Advancement of Feminism has said some female teachers particularly continue to face discriminatory dress codes, specifically being told they must wear skirts rather than trousers.

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A spokeswoman for the campaign group told the Post they remained “very much concerned” by the attitude of the Education Bureau, which insists dress codes can be enforced at the discretion of individual schools.

“We believe these kind of cases could be happening quite often, although we don’t compile statistics,” she said. “We did follow up [Kwong’s] case with the government, but their reply was very disappointing. They said it was a school policy. They said it was not their responsibility to intervene.”

Issues of dress are best addressed by looking at the purpose of the dress code and seeing how that purpose can be achieved through compromise and negotiation
Angela Spaxman, leadership coach

The spokeswoman added she feared women in some employment sectors, particularly those working as sales people or promoters, could be subjected to similarly discriminatory dress codes which the government was unwilling to take action on.

A spokesman for the EOC said anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong do not state dress or appearance codes are unlawful, but said it advises employers to “avoid imposing unnecessary dress codes which may inadvertently cause direct or indirect discrimination.”

“Dress and appearance requirements which are not applied equally to both sexes, between persons with and without a disability, or persons from different racial groups, may be discriminatory,” he said.

The Education Bureau insisted it reminds schools to comply with anti-discrimination ordinances, adding it would handle complaints from teachers according to the existing complaint handling procedures.

The heel issue

Workplace dress code policies continue to make international headlines. British receptionist Nicola Thorp was thrown into the spotlight last year after she took a stand against her employment agency, which sacked her for refusing to wear high heels. The part-time actress was dismissed by outsourcing agency Portico from her client-facing role at PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to wear shoes with a two to four inch heel. Her subsequent petition to the government to make it illegal for employers to force women to wear high heels attracted 150,000 signatures, triggering a debate in the Houses of Parliament in March this year.

During the discussion, Helen Jones MP said her investigations had found female employees were facing sexist treatment about their physical appearance reminiscent of the 1850s, and that few cases were reaching tribunal. The Labour politician told MPs current legislation did not prohibit indirect discrimination relating to dress code if employers can prove it is “reasonably necessary in the pursuit of a legitimate end”. Thorp has said she hoped this will eventually lead to tougher laws and better awareness among employers on the issue. Since her case came to prominence, her former employer has said it will review its dress code policy.

We are concerned about how in Hong Kong, women are still disproportionately judged based on their appearance
Su-Mei Thompson, head of the Women’s Foundation

Andrea Randall, a partner at Gall Solicitors in Hong Kong who previously practised in the UK, said Hong Kong still lacked significant test cases for sex discrimination relating dress code to prove the law’s effectiveness, but said employers here would be wise to consider Thorp’s case when imposing dress codes.

She emphasised that even if an employee has contractually agreed to adhere to a company dress code, they can challenge it later if it conflicts with the Sex Discrimination Ordinance.

“I think employers in Hong Kong will be looking at cases like [Thorp’s],” she said. “It is very unusual for an employer to impose a dress code here, but if they did impose one, you will find that your employee will often just look for work elsewhere as this is a discussion that will arise early on [in the employment]. It would be helpful if the EOC published more guidance for employers on this. They are generally law-abiding; it is a matter of educating employers to make sure they are not discriminating against employees.”

Face value judgements

In Hong Kong, a recent poll commissioned by The Women’s Foundation (TWF) in partnership with Edelman Intelligence found 60 per cent of women said they were discriminated against at work based on their looks. The survey of 1,000 people aged 22 to 45 also suggested more men than women said women were routinely the subject of comments on their appearance.

TWF has this year launched a new campaign, #MyRealCareerLine, which celebrates factors behind women’s professional success other than their appearance.

Su-Mei Thompson, head of the Women’s Foundation, said judging women by their appearance “contributes to the enduring problem of gender inequality both in the workplace and beyond.”

“We are concerned about how in Hong Kong, women are still disproportionately judged based on their appearance,” she said. “Hong Kong is one of the world’s most advanced economies, but the data shows we still have a long way to go.”

Campaigners advocate better gender-based education in schools and company driven gender equality initiatives rather than new legislation.

Randall said she would prefer to see the EOC issue more guidance for employers on the topic rather than any redrafting of existing legislation.

She said legal practitioners would often examine cases outside of the workplace when considering whether the treatment complained of amounted to sex discrimination.

She cited the example of lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung’s High Court victory in 2017, in which it was ruled Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre had acted unlawfully by forcing him to have his hair cut for hygiene reasons despite female inmates being allowed to keep their locks.

“The takeaway point from that case is that if they want to impose a dress code, it has to be fair across the board,” she said.

Calm communication

Meanwhile Angela Spaxman, a leadership coach and facilitator with more than 20 years of working experience in Hong Kong, said she had not encountered clients in the city who had suffered discrimination over their high heels, but agreed it was a problem.

Dress and appearance requirements which are not applied equally to both sexes ... may be discriminatory
EOC spokesman

She said, conversely, she often dealt with situations where employees were not told their dress was inappropriate, and this eventually led to “a breakdown in communications and conflict”.

“Issues of dress are best addressed by looking at the purpose of the dress code and seeing how that purpose can be achieved through compromise and negotiation,” she said. “I help my clients learn to work this way with any requirements they want to express in the workplace, whether to employees around job requirements, or to bosses to express needs and negotiate compromises. With more open and effective communications, it’s often possible to find new ways to solve problems that exceed everyone’s needs.”

She added that more effective communication between employers and employees could prevent more serious conflicts from developing.

“The vast majority of these issues can be resolved through communication and mutual compromise, and that requires a certain level of interpersonal skill by at least one of the parties involved,” she said.


Hong Kong police: No flamboyant moustaches

In January 2003, Senior Inspector Sharon Lim Shiow-hwa was reprimanded by her superior officer for apparently refusing to restore her highlighted hair to its natural colour. The force introduced a ban on dyed hair in January 2001. Lim, who had dyed her hair before the ban, took her case to the High Court, arguing that she had tried to grow out her highlights naturally instead of covering them with a new colour. The judge subsequently agreed that the reprimand should be quashed, saying there was no “rational approach” for the inspector to follow in restoring her hair to its original colour.

Despite the case, the force continues to retain the ban. Other restrictions include a ban on visible jewellery with the exception of a wrist watch and on the two ring fingers, as well as no “flamboyant moustaches” for men. Cosmetics can be used “in moderation” but coloured nails are disallowed.

Citigroup: Skirts and dresses should sit at or just above the knee

Ahead of an office move in 2015, US banking giant Citigroup sent out a dress code leaflet to Hong Kong staff, with separate advice for both sexes, including information on what not to wear. Men were told to don a long-sleeved shirt and tie with dress pants. No tie was necessary for non-frontline staff. Formal events required a business suit and tie. All male workers were required to wear “dress shoes”. Meanwhile, women were told to wear dress pants or a skirt, with a tailored top, blouse or cardigan, tailored skirt or pant suits, or work dresses. They were advised that skirts and dresses should “sit at or just above the knee”. Ladies were also required to wear “low or high heels (pumps or open-toed)”, but flats should be “covered and appropriate for office wear” with no strappy or casual footwear. Banned clothing items for all included: sweatpants, leggings, miniskirts, outfits with plunging necklines, flat strappy sandals, slippers and excessively high platforms. Workers were advised to consult their supervisors if they were still unsure of what was appropriate office wear.

Hong Kong government: emphasis is on dressing smartly and neatly

The government does not stipulate an official dress code for its employees. But according to a spokeswoman for the Civil Service Bureau, the emphasis is on dressing smartly and neatly for work. “As a general rule, government employees should be neatly and properly dressed in order to give members of the public and visitors a positive and professional image of the civil service” she said. “Their dress code should suit the surroundings and occasions at workplaces as well as at external events and meetings.”