Time to bring sexism to heel
I've never been a big fan of high heels. While they may be an easy way to add extra height, make my legs appear longer and my calves slimmer, I find them painful and uncomfortable. I tend to wear them only when it's absolutely necessary, such as at important functions or events.
That being said, I associate professional attire with the value I see in myself, my job and the organisation I represent, so I always want to look presentable, with or without high heels.
At one point in my life, I worked for a leading Southeast Asian bank as a relationship manager. The role required me to interact with clients, so I always tried my best to look decent and appropriate. It wasn't always easy -- some mornings I felt sluggish and would have preferred to dress down a little.
I genuinely respect those who can spend hours every day perfecting their makeup and pairing just the right outfit with matching shoes and handbag. I don't fall in that category but I still try to look my best.
One day when I was leaving the office, I ran into the deputy department head and he made a comment that made me feel belittled. I was wearing a pair of unbranded brown flats. "Your shoes are hideous, they look like something you'd wear to a fresh market. Look at her shoes," he said, pointing to my colleague. She was wearing beautiful, black shiny stiletto heels. "You should learn to wear something like that."
I grew ashamed of that particular pair of shoes and never again wore them to the office. I started wearing high heels, putting up with bruised and blistered feet and an aching back. I had to ask myself why I had to tolerate this pain when the shoes had very little to do with my productivity or efficiency.
Those memories came back to me when I heard about the #KuToo movement in Japan. It began in January with a tweet by an actress who said she didn't believe employers should force women to wear high heels to work.
A clever combination of the Japanese word shoes (kutsu) and pain (kutsuu), #KuToo has had a snowball effect akin to the #MeToo movement -- the global platform to promote gender equality and repudiate sexual harassment.
Concerns about inequality between men and women have risen amid the backdrop of socio-economic development over the past century. The roles and responsibilities of women have shifted tremendously. We have risen to become more prominent in a business world once dominated by men.
Women have proved to be equally, if not more, capable of doing the same tasks as men. They are able to accomplish great things through their intellect and skills.
The latest research from Grant Thornton International reveals increasing numbers of women in senior management positions, both globally and across the region. Southeast Asia in particular has outperformed the global average in several indicators, with 94% of companies now reporting at least one woman in a senior management role, compared with 87% worldwide.
I am confident that high heels had very little or nothing to do with these achievements. Women should be able to have the freedom to wear the shoes that are appropriate and comfortable for them.
This sexism and double standard in dress codes practices occurs not only in Japan.
Last year in London, for instance, a woman was sent home for wearing flats to work as the company mandated her to wear heels between 2 and 5 inches. In other cases, company policies have gone as far as demanding that women dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits and constantly reapply makeup.
The Swiss bank UBS once dedicated 40 pages to telling staff how to dress "appropriately". One requirement was for women to wear "flesh coloured" underwear.
While companies have the right to suggest dress codes appropriate to the job and workplace, most seem to disproportionately affect women.
Employers should be able to draw the line between dress codes that ensure formality, and those are impractical and discriminatory. Forcing women to dress in certain ways, especially when it is against their will, is a form of harassment, which can lead to other gender discrimination.
I think it's time for society to move forward and grant women the freedom to wear whatever shoes or clothing they prefer as long as it remains professional and appropriate.
Asia Focus Writer
Asia Focus Writer
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