As a campaigner for the rights of girls to have shorts and pants included as choices in their everyday school uniform options, I have heard a range of arguments as to why this is unacceptable. Some parents and educators believe that it is perfectly acceptable to force girls to wear dresses and skirts to school. In this article, I take a look at each of the arguments we at Girls’ Uniform Agenda have heard to justify forcing girls to wear skirts and dresses at school. In so doing, I expose the ridiculousness of these arguments, and arm you with counter arguments if you find yourself having to defend why girls should be offered uniform choices.
Argument 1 – Girls wearing skirts and dresses to school is an important tradition.
Using tradition to shore up your argument is as old as the hills (one could say it’s a tradition!), and has been used to impede progress in a range of areas, particularly in relation to the rights of women and girls. Once upon a time (and not that long ago), women in the public service were expected to resign from their jobs when they married, as traditionally women were cared for by their husband after marriage, and it was deemed improper for a married woman to work. Thankfully, society changes over time, and things we once held dear we come to see as harmful traditions that unfairly impact on certain members within society. Once we know better, we do better. Tradition is in no way a valid reason to force girls to give up their rights.
Argument 2 – Girls like wearing skirts and dresses, and do not want to wear shorts/long pants.
It is undeniably true that some girls like wearing skirts and dresses, and it is also true that some girls dislike such attire. Just as we would not force girls who want to wear dresses and skirts to wear shorts and long pants, we should not force girls who want to wear shorts and long pants to wear dresses and skirts. All people have the right to choose between the clothing options available based on what they plan to do that day. Running around the block? Probably put on shorts. Heading out to the theatre? Might put on a dress. Choice is what matters here. If schools are going to mandate that students must wear the uniform or face detention, then they have a responsibility to ensure that the available options in that uniform include clothing that ALL girls feel comfortable in.
Argument 3 – We are preparing girls for the world of work.
Anyone who has been into workplaces recently will know that what a large number of Australians wear to work is increasingly casual. In the last 10 years, I cannot recall once seeing a man at work in knee length socks and long shorts. Additionally, I continually see women at work in shorts and long pants, and I certainly see female teachers dressed this way. While some workplaces still require uniforms, none are able to force women into dresses and skirts. We have anti-discrimination legislation to prevent that, as we realise that refusing to allow a person choice based on their gender, and therefore our created notion of what is and is not acceptable for them to wear, is discriminatory. If we are preparing girls for the world of work, we need to be encouraging them to be strong, flexible, innovative leaders, who think critically and stand up for their beliefs. Forcing girls to wear skirts and dresses because they are girls, and giving detentions to those who refuse to comply, completely undermines the advancement of girls.
Argument 4 – Let’s focus on the learning time and not the 40 minutes of play time in the school day.
When taking this argument head on, we can argue that forcing girls into skirts and dresses may well negatively impact on their learning. It’s hard to concentrate when your legs are freezing cold, or when you’re worried that the boys might be looking up your skirt. It’s hard to do robotics on the floor, or bend right down to plug in your laptop, when you’ve got to continually keep one hand on your skirt to ensure no-one cops an eyeful. It is also reasonable to assume that girls who are forced into dresses and skirts, when they feel very uncomfortable with this, are more likely to feel hostile toward school and disengage from their learning. Let’s indeed focus on the learning time, and allow girls to be as comfortable when they learn as the boys sitting beside them.
Argument 5 – Wearing dresses and skirts doesn’t stop girls playing. I see girls running around all the time.
Many girls currently at school say that wearing a dress DOES stop them from playing, doing exercise and having fun. We should listen to and respect their voices, and believe them. Similarly, many women who remember their school days comment on how restricted they felt wearing dresses and skirts to school, sitting on the sidelines and watching boys play. Studies have shown that there IS a difference between boys and girls activity levels when a comparison is made between activity in sports uniforms and activity in dresses for the girls. Additionally, statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that overall girls do significantly less physical activity than boys. Girls do less physical activity than boys. It’s a fact.
Argument 6 – If we have to add additional options for girls we will have too many versions of the uniform in the school and that won’t look good. It will undermine our image.
I really did hear this from one school leadership team. I was quick to point out to them that many local schools, and those further afield, did offer girls options of skort, shorts, culottes, pants and dresses. These schools had not reported that their school looked shabby. In fact, their uniform policies outlined the need for their uniform as it reflected the pride of the students and their commitment to the school. Having well designed, coordinated uniform options allows the ‘uniform’ look of students to remain. Further, allow all students to wear one uniform of shorts, pants and polo shirt. Problem solved!
Argument 7 – We must retain the formal dress as the formal uniform, as girls look smarter in dresses.
This argument is closely linked to the one above. Of course, girls can look smart in shorts and blouse options. Many schools allow girls to wear pants and shirts, and they look very smart in these. Do boys in shorts and pants not look smart in their uniforms? Do teachers within the school not look smart in their shorts and pants that they may choose to wear to work? And what of all those women wearing uniforms in the workplace that include shorts and long pants? Are they not looking smart?
Crucially, the need to look good should not be the primary message we send our girls. It states that we place a higher value on what girls look like than what they are able to achieve, how they are able to move or how they feel about themselves. In 2017 it is not acceptable to argue that girls must look pretty and girly in dresses and skirts. What girls must be is strong and capable, and what they are wearing should actively encourage that.
Argument 8 – If you don’t like the school’s uniform policy, leave this school and go somewhere else with a policy more aligned to what you want.
If you do find yourself engaged in a battle with your school over uniform changes, you are bound to hear this chestnut somewhere along the way. All families have the option of choosing their local school as their school preference, and their local school should not be engaging in practices that discriminate against girls. Many families buy houses close to their school so they can walk their children to school, and changing schools is not a simple option.
Further, limited school choice for rural families may mean they cannot simply move elsewhere. For inner city and suburban areas it is common for schools to be zoned and access to be denied unless families reside in the zone. In addition, options for shorts and pants for girls are extremely limited across all school sectors, be it public, private, independent, or religious. As such, moving areas or schools may not solve the problem of inability to access appropriate choices for girls.
The disruption caused to families and students by moving schools is much greater than the disruption caused to a school by adding shorts and pants for girls. When girls at school wish to wear shorts and long pants, it is discriminatory to refuse this request because they are girls, and shameful to force their family out of the school community.
We all need to seek changes in policies and practices that we don’t agree with. History is replete with stories of women being jailed for demanding the right to vote, being denied the right to be elected to parliament, and girls at school being given detention for wearing shorts or pants. Unfortunately the latter practice continues to this day. Institutions continually need to be challenged so that their rules are changed and updated to meet current social expectations.
Join Girls’ Uniform Agenda in the fight to ensure that ALL girls in ALL schools are given the choice to wear shorts and pants alongside other appropriate uniform options. ‘Like’ our Facebook page and sign our petition to show your support. Let’s raise our voices for girls everywhere, so that their right to dress for comfort, freedom of movement and because today they feel like pants, is respected everywhere.
Dr Amanda Mergler
Co-founder Girls Uniform Agenda
Contact GUA at firstname.lastname@example.org