Anyone who has looked into what is on offer at private girls’ schools knows that these schools situate themselves as leaders in girl specific education. To them, this means embracing, enhancing, supporting, and nurturing girls. Creating leaders, do-ers, girls with determination, girls who challenge disadvantage, and girls who are involved in social justice.
More recently, these schools outline the ways in which they embrace gender equality, and teach girls to do the same.
Private School Promises
Take for example the following excerpts from the prospectus or website of some private girls’ schools in Australia:
The students are at the heart of our strategic planning. We believe in them, support them and see them as leaders of the future.
A [name of school] girl is empowered to transform her world. Our Social Justice Program increases our students’ awareness of social justice issues and provides them with opportunities to take action. The School prepares and inspires students to be active, informed and responsible global citizens.
Girls at [this school] enjoy not only equal opportunity but every opportunity. They participate, influence, lead and learn in an environment where there is no gender stereotyping and where they are encouraged and supported to explore their interests and passions.
That is the rhetoric. Let us consider the reality. Taking just the last quote, the school is an environment where there is no gender stereotyping? How can that be? In that school, girls are forced to wear skirts and dresses as formal uniform. Shorts and long pants are not allowed. I’d say that’s some pretty massive gender stereotyping right there.
Forcing Girls into Dresses
And they are not alone in having this skirt and dress requirement for girls. In Brisbane, the number of private girls’ schools that allow girls to wear shorts and long pants as formal uniform is close to zero. I looked, and I could not find one private girls school that offered shorts and long pants as a formal option to girls (although I have since heard from two schools that they do provide pants and shorts). There were eight that allowed girls pants in winter, but outside of winter, the girls required a skirt or dress.
Challenging the Status Quo
How exactly are girls meant to lead when we deny them the right to choose from a range of suitable clothing options? Do leaders accept the way things are, particularly when ‘the way things are’ reinforces their disadvantage? Do girls with determination sit quietly by and say nothing, when what they really want is to wear shorts and pants to school, just like they wear them every weekend?
Do girls who challenge disadvantage and are involved in social justice ignore the needs of other girls who feel extremely uncomfortable in dresses and skirts? Do they let other girls suffer in silence, or stop playing games, or develop eating disorders, or develop depression and anxiety, because they are refused a basic right of being true to their gender identity at school?
What is the message girls get when we tell them they are powerful, determined, future leaders who can change, shape and rule the world, while simultaneously telling them that regardless of what they want, they MUST wear a skirt or dress to school. Which part of that message do you think sticks? The hypothetical future scenario they are yet to experience, or the everyday current reality they live and breathe?
We confuse children when we espouse one rhetoric and then enforce another. That is called hypocrisy, and children, particularly adolescents, have a finely tuned ability to sniff out the hypocrisy of adults and respond with disdain. Each time students experience adults saying one thing and doing another, they lose a little more respect for us. As they should.
Girls’ schools who tell the world about the future leaders they are creating, and then force those future leaders into skirts and dresses, irrespective of what those girls want, are being insincere at best and exploitative at worst. It is unacceptable to use girls to market a philosophical worldview that you do not actually offer.
And, as many public schools are also refusing to allow girls to wear shorts and pants as formal uniform, private girls school could actually be leaders in girls education.
If girls’ school believe in supporting the rights of girls, helping girls to develop leadership skills, and allowing girls to uncover their voice and potential, then they must actually listen and support those who want to wear shorts and pants. That would be a crucial first step in embracing gender equality.