Europe offers women a dressing down

Conservative dress codes for female employees may finally go, report Catherine Pepinster and Emma Cook
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The Independent Online
"WOMEN," said the Chancellor of the Exchequer last Friday to his rapt audience of 200 high-achieving females from both sides of the Atlantic, "are the driving force of the economy. We must not just reject discrimination but engage in the relentless pursuit of equal opportunities."

It was a message that won him thunderous applause from the delegates to Women and the New Economy, a two-day summit on enterprise, business and the development of a prosperous society. Gone are the days when a Labour government's idea of progress for women was just about childcare and family allowances. Instead, New Economy is its buzzword and women's part in it the Chancellor's crusade. Why, to use the sort of phrase Mr Brown would never use, the Chancellor would like to see a lot more women wearing the trousers.

Except it's still proving difficult for women to do just that. Out in the real world, some female employees are still being told their place is in a skirt. Judy Owen is claiming sex discrimination for being forbidden to wear trousers by her employer, the Professional Golfers' Association, while two female security guards working for Eurostar are considering legal action after being sent home for wearing trousers.

Nor is it not just employers who baulk at girls in trews. Last week, Wickham Comprehensive, the Gateshead school that hit the headlines for insisting 14-year-old Jo Hale wear a skirt, gave a final refusal to modify its dress code, ensuring the case, supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), will now go to court. Next week the EOC will be issuing a statement clarifying the state of play with the cases of Judy Owen and Jo Hale because press interest has been so intense.

Battles over dress code are likely to increase in the coming years under new European legislation which comes into force from next October. The Human Rights Act will have a dramatic effect on what people, especially women, are allowed to wear to work: employers who force staff to wear suits or skirts will be liable to legal action. As Rachel Crasnow, a barrister at Cloisters, one of the UK's leading civil litigation chambers, explained, "Employees will have a case if they can argue that the dress code interferes with freedom of expression or privacy rights."

Vanessa Lloyd Platt, a divorce lawyer who prefers to wear smart trouser suits, is well aware of the prejudice against women. "There is no doubt that some of the judges look you up and down and you know they're not happy when you wear trousers." Meanwhile, many City firms have attempted to relax formal dress policy by having "Dress Down Fridays" which is less radical than it appears. At accountants Ernst and Young, for instance, the list of what female employees can't wear on Fridays just about excludes everything but a smart skirt or suit. Employee relations manager Richard Gartside said, "We don't allow leggings, midriffs, bare backs, denim or sportswear." He admits, "Some women have asked what's the difference." For the men, however, what they can wear is extensive.

According to image consultant Mary Spillane: "It's still a reality that the higher up the senior ladder you go, you have to stick to skirted suits. Men are threatened by women in trousers." Those attending the Downing Street summit would have no truck with such dress codes: among those wearing trousers were Baroness Jay, Leader of the House of Lords, and Tessa Jowell, minister for women and employment.

What angers some is that women are still having to fight court cases over dress. "This sort of issue should have been put to bed years ago," said Joan Simpson, president of Business and Professional Women UK.

Claire Hale, mother of trouser-clad Jo, is equally concerned that her teenage daughter's generation is still affected. "What do you say when your daughter comes home and says `I'm freezing cold wearing a skirt'? Why should we accept what a bunch of middle-aged men decide?"

Decisions, and the power and right to make them, were just what the women attending the New Economy summit were demanding. Fiona Reynolds, director of the Cabinet Office's Women's Unit, said, "Women, who make up over half of the population, must be equal players in the economic and political arenas."

Key to this, and the New Economy - defined by the Chancellor as economic efficiency plus social justice - is giving women the chance to become part of the enterprise economy. Just under a third of all companies are set up by women and the number of women running small businesses has risen to a million. That's double the number in 1987, but still leaves Britain trailing behind the United States where women run half of all new companies. But self-employment is seen as ideal for many women because it gives them more control.

Many, however, are put off going it alone by a lack of knowledge about business, fear of computers and e-commerce, and a lack of finance. Some progress has already been made, with last Tuesday's pre-Budget report including grants and new advisory services.

"This is a cultural revolution," said Tessa Jowell. And it's one that doesn't involve a dress requirement.

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