A majority of companies where in-person customer service plays a major role in their business, such as banks and airlines, have dress codes requiring women to wear high-heeled shoes, according to a survey by Kyodo News.
While the sample size is small, at 28 companies, the survey shows how entrenched the belief is that high heels are mandatory for a woman’s professional attire.
The results come as more women are speaking out against company dress codes, something most notably expressed through the #KuToo movement — an amalgam of #MeToo combined with kutsu and kutsū, the Japanese words for shoes and pain, respectively.
Many women are demanding that they be allowed to choose work shoes that are less painful, preferring to discard heels for more comfortable flats, as high heels can cause a number of health issues including lower back pain and bunions.
Kyodo News reached out in July to a group of 32 firms that included airlines, banks and insurance companies, department stores, hotels and cellphone firms.
Of the 28 that responded, 20 said they either have rules making high heels mandatory or encourage female employees to wear them. Three companies said they did not have mandatory rules but have “guidelines” of professional attire that includes heels.
Some of them said they enforce or encourage female employees to wear heels in order to “preserve the (professional) look of the uniform,” or to “avoid making customers feel uncomfortable.”
Among the 20 firms that require heels, only two said that they would reconsider their rules.
Of the 16 airlines that responded, 15 specified the height and width of the heels to be worn by female flight attendants. Japan Airlines Co. requires heels to be 3 to 4.5 centimeters wide and 3 to 4 cm tall. All Nippon Airways Co. says heels must be between 3 and 5 cm in height and width.
Japan Airlines’ new low-cost carrier Zipair Tokyo, which will launch its services in 2020, says it plans for its flight attendants to wear sneakers, finding them more durable, easier to move in and likelier to reduce exhaustion.
NTT Docomo Inc. said it used to provide heels to its female staff working in its shops, but that it now allows staff to wear alternative shoes.
Major department store operator Takashimaya Co. says it is reconsidering its dress code guidelines on shoes. Female customer service staff currently wear pumps with heels under 5 cm with their uniforms.
Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores Co. requires uniforms and pumps with heels that are at most 5 cm high. The company allows staff to wear shoes other than heels if they make a request based on their health.
Shino Naito, an expert on labor law from the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, says the main reason companies demand women wear heels is because they believe society considers it to be “good manners” and that the firms use this as a pretext.
Excessive demands on employees to appear “womanly” or “manly” through rules on appearance such as makeup, hairstyle and clothes may lead to emotional distress, said Naito.
Companies should think about whether rules they put in place “to please customers” are burdensome to their employees, including whether they impose gender roles or make staff feel uncomfortable, Naito said.