Imagine starting a job and being told that, because you’re female, you’ll have to wear a skirt or dress to work, no trousers.
You’d be horrified, wouldn’t you? Well right now, thousands of females are facing that exact thing every day, in our school system.
Some schools across Australia still have uniform policies that prohibit girls from wearing shorts or pants to school. It’s 2017. Flight attendants don’t even have to wear skirts and dresses anymore. Why do girls have to wear a skirt or dress to school if they don’t want to?
A lack of choice
While many schools do offer girls a choice, far too many schools are lagging behind, providing a lack of suitable options. Some schools restrict shorts to sports days or turn a blind eye to bike shorts being worn under dresses, instead of addressing the underlying problem. Others provide pants for winter but not shorts for summer.
Sure, some girls like wearing a dress. For others though, it’s a real problem. They feel restricted in what they can do, and self-conscious about accidentally showing their underwear. In winter, skirts often aren’t warm enough and in summer, sweaty legs can chafe under a dress.
Uniform options matter
Most jurisdictions have policies in place that state school uniforms must comply with anti-discrimination legislation, take into account the diverse nature of the student population and be decided through consultation with the school community. Despite this, getting a school to provide appropriate options for girls is not always easy.
Ever been to a P&C meeting? All over Australia, parents have stories of trying to get their daughter’s school to provide equitable uniform options, only to be told no, or worse, face ostracism and harassment for daring to speak out about this discrimination.
Victorian mother Simone Cariss decided to take action after her young daughter asked to wear pants to school. She wanted to be comfortable and play soccer with her male friends. “My daughter asked me why she couldn’t wear pants, and I realised the only answer was because she was a girl,” Simone explains. “I knew then that I had to act, because it goes against everything I’m trying to teach my daughter about equality”.
Simone approached the school and outlined why it was important for girls to have the option to wear pants. The school said no. But Simone wouldn’t take no for an answer. She created a petition, appealing to policy makers to create legislation that requires all schools to provide uniform options for all students that don’t discriminate based on gender. To date, the petition has over 19,000 signatures, and her daughter’s school has changed its policy to include pants for girls.
Further north in Queensland, Amanda Mergler was experiencing similar problems. Amanda joined the P&C of her son’s school, where her daughter would also attend in the future, and immediately brought up the issue of the girls’ uniform not including shorts and a shirt. Thinking that this oversight would be quickly rectified, she was shocked to discover that there was little if any support for a change within the P&C or school management. Despite a survey being undertaken, which showed that 51% of girls disliked the dress and 81% of girls would wear shorts/skorts if given the option, the school decided not to make any changes.
“I was frustrated and angry,” said Amanda. “After continuing to campaign with research and statistics at P&C meetings, the P&C President removed me from the agenda and the Principal told me he refused to discuss the uniform anymore. It was completely unacceptable.”
Amanda did have a small win. After contacting the Department of Education and Training, the school was required to make a change, but it was short lived. “Rather than provide a suitable option for girls, the school just took the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ off their uniform list, meaning girls could in theory wear the boys’ uniform,” Amanda explains.
Amanda’s attempts to promote this change to the school community via social media were thwarted, when the P&C President removed her posts and blocked her from the parents’ Facebook page. “When my daughter started school, she wore the boys’ uniform, and on the second day she was stopped from using the toilet by an older girl who told her she had to use the boys’ toilet because she was wearing the boys’ uniform,” said Amanda. This was the final straw for Amanda and her family, and she withdrew her children from the school.
The Girls’ Uniform Agenda
Through their shared experiences, Amanda and Simone connected online and decided to create an advocacy and action group to address this issue, Girls’ Uniform Agenda. Girls’ Uniform Agenda aims to support students and parents in their efforts to change their school’s uniform policy, and to campaign for legislation to mandate appropriate shorts and pants options for all students, at all schools, every day.
The wearing of dresses and skirts is no longer an expectation of women in society – so why do we continue to force this archaic stereotype on girls in school?