Girls’ school uniforms and sex discrimination.

I was telling a colleague recently about the work Girls’ Uniform Agenda does in advocating that all girls in all schools across Australia have the option of shorts and pants as everyday school wear. My colleague looked at me and stammered, “but, but, don’t schools have to allow that? Don’t we have legislation that means they are required to do that already?”

Legal loopholes

I have faced this comment before. In fact when I first asked for shorts and pants to be added at my daughter’s school, one of the first things I did was check out current legislation. Initially it seemed clear to me; we have anti-discrimination legislation that prevents people from being discriminated against based on their sex. However what I have learned over the last two years is that the legislation is anything but clear, and the ambiguities within it allow schools to continue this discriminatory practice.

The Federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984

Federally, the most pertinent piece of legislation is the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. With specific reference to education, Section 21 (2) states that “It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of the student’s sex”. Discrimination is defined as occurring when a person treats someone less favourably than they would treat a person of a different sex.

The challenge then is to demonstrate that girls receive less favourable treatment than boys by being forced into dresses/skirts. We at Girls’ Uniform Agenda believe this discrimination is evident in many ways, including restriction of movement; concerns around modesty limiting one’s ability to engage in regular daily tasks (such as walking up stairs and sitting on the floor); and physical health reasons (inability to engage in sport and physical activity including active travel to and from school).  These concerns are genuine for girls, and limit the choices available to them in ways that boys do not experience.

State based Acts – what is ‘reasonable’?

Each state in Australia has anti-discrimination legislation that schools must uphold. However, there is often a clause allowing schools to determine the standard of dress required. The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, in Section 40(1) allows schools to set their own ‘reasonable’ standard for student dress, and the standard is considered ‘reasonable’ if the views of the school community have been taken into account.

The final report of the Inquiry into Dress Codes and School Uniforms in Victorian Schools by the Education and Training Committee makes clear that “while the wording of the Act may be imprecise, the Committee believes it is unlikely to extend to policies that are openly discriminatory”. Thus it appears that discrimination can be demonstrated in school uniforms where shorts and long pants are not made available to girls, and the right of schools to set ‘reasonable’ standards does not allow this discrimination to continue.

How do we make schools follow the law?

The best way to get current legislation enforced is for it to be tested. For this to occur, a student or their parent must successfully sue their school and demonstrate sex discrimination specifically in relation to a girl being forced to wear a dress or skirt without other options. Finding someone who is willing to do this is difficult, as it will be a time consuming, costly, and adversarial process. Quite understandably, parents are reluctant to put their children through it.

With all of this in mind, we at Girls’ Uniform Agenda are working to have the ambiguity in the legislation around school uniforms removed, so that the requirement of schools to treat all students equitably is clear. In addition, we are working to have additions made to the legislation to include an acknowledgment that all uniform choices must be made available to all students.

And while legislative change is important, we know that what also matters is public opinion. Girls’ Uniform Agenda are working hard to put this issue on the public agenda to help people realise the archaic tradition that is impacting on girls all over the country. The more pressure we all put on schools, education departments and politicians, the more likely it is that we will see change.

To support all Australian girls, please visit the Girls’ Uniform Agenda Facebook page and website, where you will find a plethora of resources to engage with, including templates to help you write to appropriate Ministers. With time we will create the change we want to see, and people who say, “all schools offer girls the option of shorts and long pants at school”, will be correct.