High heels – expression or oppression?

Uniforms are meant to unite, but are they masking individuality, asks physio John Hammond.

There has been quite a bit of media coverage about Nicola Thorp, a receptionist at management consultancy PwC, who was sent home from work because she was not wearing heels.
It might be easy to think that this sort of sexism only happens in corporate city firms, not in physiotherapy. Think again. There are many ways in which our choices of what to wear, as expressions of our identities, are restricted both formally and informally in the physiotherapy workplace. 
Historically the physiotherapy uniform has military origins. The blue trousers and white tunic/polo top were designed for men. Over time this has been modified so it’s more comfy. But it is still immediately recognised as more masculine than feminine.
In my own research, male students embraced the uniform as an expression of their masculine self, while female students seemed to suggest that the uniform and associated dress code (hair tied back, no jewellery and make up) neutralised their gender identity.  
I can see that a uniform provides consistent professional recognition and in some cases empowers individuals. However we must not lose sight of how challenging it may be for some to conform to these professional conventions.
What about when we take off our uniform and consider other professional activities such as going for an interview, attending a conference, or being a manager? What do we wear when there are no rules? Or so we think. ‘Social norms’ still exist. For a man a suit and tie is the social ‘norm’, signifying the straight, white middle-class ‘default man’, to cite the artist Grayson Perry. If you are not the default man, the suit – like high heels for women – can be seen as an oppressive tool.
Of course there need to be limits where there are risks to patient safety. Bare arms below the elbows reduce infection risk. But if people feel that a significant part of their identity is masked then they may either under-perform or leave the profession.  
We all have a responsibility to question whether dress code policies are ‘inclusive’. Rather than question whether a colleague is appropriately ‘dressed’, reflect on why you might even be thinking that in the first place. 
  • Dr John Hammond is associate dean (education) at Kingston University and St George’s University of London where he chairs the equality and diversity committee.
Dr John Hammond associate dean (education) at Kingston University and St George’s University of London

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