Ever tried to play chasey in a skirt? The thing flaps and billows like a clumsy tornado about your knees. If you’re serious about not getting tagged, nine times out of ten, undergarments will be exposed. Pride will be lost.
In school, perhaps this doesn’t matter for a while. I recall many of my shameless tiny peers (all girls, mind) and I doing handstands and cartwheels about the oval in our recess and lunchtime, breezily showing our knickered butts to the sun.
Soon enough though, the pubescent trait of self-consciousness sets in. Dignity is much easier preserved and mortification avoided by merely sitting, legs tucked firmly beneath the fickle garment. This is especially the case if you’re sensitive about body image, as is the unfortunate norm among many developing young women. The halcyon days of breaktime cartwheeling are well and truly over.
This shift to sedentary habits, however, doesn’t do young people’s physical or mental health any good.
According to 2014 ABS data, girls aren’t doing enough physical activity – research that lead to the Australian government’s subsequent Girls Make Your Move campaign. Giving girls the option to wear shorts or pants could very well be a significant incentive to move more; and there’s research to back this up.
But the problem isn’t just about health. It’s an equality issue, too. We live in a cultural moment of huge forward momentum for women, where traditional gender binaries are increasingly being challenged, and new spaces created for people who align to and express diverse gender identities. Yet currently, a vast number of schools in Australia are resistant to updating their uniform policies to reflect broader cultural change.
If we’re serious about abolishing sexist stereotypes and spreading the message of female empowerment, why is this archaic policy still being upheld in the very places where young people are supposed to learn about society and its values?
Under federal law, it shouldn’t be. This is the case put forward by a new paper out of Flinders University, which argues that forcing gender-rigid uniforms upon girls could very well be in contravention of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.
The basis of the paper’s research was to gather data from both private and public school dress policies in Adelaide, a year after the state’s Department of Education School Dress Code Procedure was introduced in 2016 as an Australia-first. Under the legislation, it is mandatory that a public school provides flexible uniform options to all students, allowing the right of choice regardless of gender. This includes allowing for clothing that considers “freedom of movement, level of comfort, safety, consideration of climatic factors, and specific circumstances such as pregnancy”.
One year on, the researchers found that the vast majority of public schools were compliant with the code. The picture is assumed to be broadly similar elsewhere around Australia, with Queensland the most recent state to make uniform choice mandatory earlier this year.
The picture is very different for private schools.
Compared to 98 per cent of public schools in Adelaide offering shorts as a uniform option for girls, only 26 per cent of private schools did the same. They were also far less likely to offer pants/trouser options too (99 per cent versus 34 per cent), and far more likely to impose seasonal and year restrictions. For instance, while lower-year girls at some schools were allowed to gambol about in shorts, but older years could not.
When they did provide an alternative, many offered a restricted option of ‘skorts’ or culottes. In January this year, the ABC reported on a continuing recalcitrance from within the private school sector.
“We think it's really connected to tradition — a lot of them say, 'well, we've had this uniform for a long time, it's part of our old girls' network, people really like it',” said mother and psychologist Amanda Mergler from the Girls’ Uniform Agenda, a nation-wide group campaigning for change.
Not all have been stick in the muds however. In 2017, following the introduction of legislation for public schools in WA, elite private institutions like Penrhos and Guildford Grammar joined the uniform revolution.
One of the paper’s authors is Sarah Cohen-Woods, an associate professor and psychology researcher at Flinders University, who is also the SA representative of Girls’ Uniform Agenda. It was a moment in the playground with her young daughter that made her aware there was a problem.
“We had to change schools for my eldest daughter, from a state school to a private school, and I watched her coming down a slide,” she told me. “And, as girls often do on a hot day, they'll stick their legs out so their skin doesn't stick on the sides.
“Obviously I saw a fair bit. And I was just like, ‘Oh. Oh my gosh, I haven't even considered this.’”
Cohen-Woods raised the issue with the school, and the head teacher’s response was all that she’d hoped for. Within a term or two, the school dress policy had been updated to provide girls the option to wear trousers and shorts.
“She absolutely agreed with it, and even changed the rules for the youngest kids, who get to wear the sports uniform now every day,” said Cohen-Woods.
On the one hand, this story of a school’s readiness to listen and adapt is heartening. Yet it also exposes the core root of the problem.
It is, says Cohen-Woods, an absolutely unreasonable and unfair expectation that parents and students should be the change-leaders here. It depends upon their willingness to “make a fuss” – potentially jeopardising parent and child relationships to the school and its community. It may also draw unwanted attention to the child among her teachers and peers.
“If your child's a scholarship child, you wouldn't want to rock the boat,” says Cohen-Woods. “If your child's a high school child, you probably wouldn’t want to speak up.”
This scenario also depends upon a child somehow finding the temerity to voice their discomfort, or even the wherewithal to recognise its source.
And if a school declines to make a change following a direct request? The next option is to make a complaint to the Equal Opportunities Commissioner.
“It's going to take parents of children threatening to take schools to court, and that's a really unfortunate situation,” says Cohen-Woods.
Ideally, she says, the pressure would be coming from above. In her paper, she and co-author Rachel Laattoe propose the introduction of an explicit federal statement to ensure equal choice for young women irregardless of their learning institution.
Public schools may be a league ahead under the new code; but even so, there are instances in which they are – perhaps unwittingly – creating discriminatory uniform environments.
For instance, many offer unisex rather than girl-specific shorts, which “may become problematic for older age-groups when body shapes diverge post-puberty,” the report authors write.
“It also fails to consider that the way students perceive the uniform matters,” they continue. “If the majority of students perceive an item of clothing as the boys’ uniform, that uniform clothing option is not a gender-neutral option.”
Girls who choose the unisex option may even face bullying or reprisal from their peers for “transgressing the gender norms of clothing”.
The authors point to another area where the state code’s mandate of equality and choice may be compromised. In two schools, girls were offered a tracksuit pants option, but were denied a formal pants option that male students were entitled to.
This, they believe, reinforces a stereotype that for a woman to present herself appropriately in a formal occasion, she needs to conform to gendered norms.
“Exemptions” to school uniform policy for specific individuals also do not pass muster. In fact, the report argues, they may stigmatise the individual, and make them even more vulnerable during fraught developmental years.
The Girls’ Uniform Agenda’s advocacy is slowly helping to give young girls the right to play, sit and learn as comfortably as boys. Its supporters include AFL player Emma Kearney, Advancing Women founder Michelle Redfern, Australian columnist and author Nikki Gemmell, and Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi.
While it doesn’t offer legal advice, it provides information and resources, including template letters for parents to ministers and school principals.
The site also includes a number of case studies from girls wanting the right to wear shorts. Some, like that of eight-year-old Marlie, a self-proclaimed tomboy, tell of small victories. Others reveal the entrenched hostility of a school defending its tradition, paranoid of anyone who seeks to disrupt the status quo.
“No employer in Australia can tell women to wear dresses or skirts,” says Cohen-Woods. “Aside from the issues of the appeal to tradition fallacy, things change. When these schools were established, be it in 1880 or whatever that may be, disciplinary procedures have changed.
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