The findings of ‘High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes’, a report by the parliamentary committees for Petitions and for Women and Equalities, was published yesterday. The report urges the government to fine companies that force their employees to wear high heels, responding in particular to the case of London receptionist Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from her job after refusing to change from her flat shoes into high heels.
Nicola’s experience paved the way for many women to share their experiences of being forced into a uniform of high heels, causing pain and discomfort. Yet many women embrace high heels as a tool to boost their confidence in the workplace and gain height. There is a perception that a pair of heels can boost your authority – yet could it also cause adverse effects?
Sheelagh McNamara, voice coach and lead tutor on the RADA in Business Executive Presence for Women course, talks here about the effect that sky-high heels can have on women’s vocal and physical presence.
“Most women (although not all) will wear some sort of heel in a situation where they want to create impact, and that in itself is not a problem. The difficulty comes when you wear vertiginous heels, and even more so when those shoes have a platform. They don’t allow you to connect with the ground properly, as your weight is pushed forward onto the front of the foot. In order to maintain an upright position you have to lock your knees, and the moment you do so your abdominal muscles become tight in order to keep you stable. Once that happens, the diaphragm cannot contract and your lungs can’t expand to allow you to take a full breath. And breath is what you need to drive right through to the end of a sentence and land an idea effectively.
Wearing high heels can cause your breath to become shallow, your pitch to become high, you speak rapidly and you’ll sound breathy. All of this lowers your authority and impact. While we’re not talking about aping male voices, we do associate gravitas with a slower pace and deeper pitch.”
So if you’re still attached to your favourite pair of Jimmy Choos, can you overcome this? Sheelagh points to RADA’s acting training as an example of how performers conquer the problem: “It’s not practical that all actors can wear flat shoes – in some historical dramas even the men will be in heels – but during their years of training they are taught to cope, in a training tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. They’re able to let their knees soften and the belly relax, so they can access their breath and land the line.
As well as affecting your vocal power, if you’re not comfortable in the shoes a high heel can leave women lacking in balance and grounding. The image that comes to mind is of a businessman striding confidently through an office or airport, while his female colleague scuttles behind in a tottering pair of heels. The woman is literally struggling to keep up with her male counterpart.”
Many women may feel that an extra level of height is useful, especially if they work in a male-dominated industry – yet there is more to making your impact than the clothes or shoes you’re wearing.
RADA in Business courses cover core elements of physical presence, ensuring your posture is giving you the grounded, balanced stance to speak with confidence and authority. One female course participant, who struggled with feeling short, spoke of her amazement at feeling two inches taller after a RADA in Business masterclass – without changing her shoes!
“You don’t look taller just because you’ve got high heels – it’s also about posture”, Sheelagh explains. “If you are engaging, people look at your face and gestures and listen to what you’re saying – they’re not analysing the rest of your appearance. Without doubt, heels make many women feel confident and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about being realistic”.
Should a company’s uniform policy be allowed to take away choice and voice? Whether the issue is an enforced dress code or implied societal pressure, the experiences of many women who responded to Nicola Thorp’s case suggest that clothing is still a fundamental part of how women believe they are perceived. High heels do not hold the answers to authority and gravitas; in fact, they challenge women’s ability to access the status they can powerfully convey through the physical tools of body, breath and voice.