Grab a cuppa and prepare to be outraged at the widespread inequality faced by schoolgirls.
Dr Amanda Mergler, co-founder of Girls’ Uniform Agenda, outlines why she and Simone Cariss have joined forces to seek school uniform equality for girls. Despite the laws around uniform equality, many schools still insist on girls wearing skirts and dresses, year round.
Special thanks to Dr Mergler for her insightful and thoughtful answers to my questions.
Girls’ Uniform Agenda is about ensuring girls have the choice of wearing pants or shorts to school. What happened to inspire you to take up this cause?
In 2015, my son started school. When I looked at the school uniform, I realised that from Grade 1, girls had to wear dresses. Even in winter, with a pair of tights. Was I misreading this? Six year old girls being forced into dresses and tights? My daughter was starting school the following year…
I raised the issue with the principal and the P&C, asking if we could work toward adding shorts and a shirt for the girls. I was surprised at the intense opposition from the school. After extensive research, looking at policy and legislation, surveying the students, and arguing my case at P&C meetings, the deputy principal finally said, in exasperation, “We are trying to look like a private school and attract double income parents. We need our girls in dresses and our boys in ties to do that”.
To say I was shocked would be an understatement.
I came home that day and cried. I felt incredibly sad that a school would not prioritise the needs of its students. The next day, with renewed vigour, I wrote to the Department of Education and Training outlining the situation and asking why the school was not required to provide girls with the choice of shorts and pants when the departments’ Student Dress Code Policy states that “student dress codes offer gender neutral uniform options for students”.
The school swung into action. The department told them they DID have to offer girls choices, and the principal took legal advice from the department to ensure his new policy met their guidelines. What he did, the crafty fellow, was simply remove the words “boys” and “girls” from his school uniform policy. Any girl who wanted to wear shorts could wear the boys’ uniform.
Of course, very few girls will wear a uniform that has for years been known as the boy’s uniform. It takes a lot kind of courage to stand up against gender norms at the ripe old age of 6. My daughter however, toddled off for the first day of Grade 1 proudly wearing her “boys’ uniform”. On her second day, she was stopped by an older girl and told she had to use the boys’ toilet now, as she was wearing the boys’ uniform.
I cannot stand by and let injustice happen nor can I let children pick on others and not intervene. I can’t turn a blind eye when a school system flexes its muscles in an attempt to silence parent’s concerns. And I cannot accept that our daughters will be forced to wear a dress and tights to school when the boys sitting beside them can wear shorts and pants, due to their biology. That is sex discrimination. I refuse to stand by and do nothing while that happens.
I wrote about the issue in an article for The Conversation that was viewed and shared quite extensively. Numerous people reached out to me sharing their own experiences, most notably Simone Cariss who, 6 months earlier, started a petition calling for pants and shorts to be mandated in all schools. This petition is sitting just shy of 20K signatures. We decided to form GUA given our shared passion and the realisation that we would be stronger tackling this issue collectively.
In high school, I was denied the option to wear pants in winter, despite my Mum’s efforts. Why do you think schools are so resistant to the idea of girls in pants, even now in 2017?
Girls’ Uniform Agenda have heard from so many women who have been fighting schools on this issue for many years. It shows that our education system is deeply flawed when those with the power refuse to allow girls to wear clothing that they wear in every other part of their lives. Parents and students have been fighting for this right for decades.
The key reasons I have heard schools give for refusing to allow girls to wear shorts and pants include the following (try not to explode with anger as you read these!):
- Girls look better/smarter in dresses
- Girls can still run around in dresses
- Our school image rests on girls in dresses
- It’s tradition that girls wear dresses
- They need to dress this way to be prepared for the world of work
- Everyone dresses in ways they don’t want to sometimes
- Children should just do as they are told
While we can easily refute all of these arguments, schools that want to resist change cling to these outdated, discriminatory and false understandings. Schools now operate within an education market where each is vying for the “best” students to enhance NAPLAN scores. In their desire to be viewed as an excellent school, they force girls into dresses and skirts as part of an elite image. Schools appear to think that image is everything, and that girls in dresses must be part of that image. Girls being told that their wants, needs and comforts must be forfeited for the school’s image.
Just how widespread is this issue? Some say that it’s only a small number of private schools adhering to this outdated dress code- what do the numbers say?
Unfortunately, this issue is very widespread. In Brisbane for example, 10% of public primary schools, and 36% of primary schools require girls to wear dresses or skirts. While 10% may seem like a small amount, my daughter being at one of those schools meant that this was a massive problem for us. In secondary schools, the figures get far worse. 70% of public high schools and 100% of private high schools require girls to wear skirts or dresses. Girls’ Uniform Agenda is investigating school uniform policies across the country and our preliminary analysis indicate that these figures are similar everywhere in Australia.
This means that many girls who are currently wearing shorts and pants at primary school are shocked to find this cannot continue in high school. When they ask why they can longer wear shorts and pants, they realise there is no reason, other than their sex. Each time a girl accepts this as her reality, we move one step further away from gender equality.
What sort of message does this send girls and young women?
It tells them, loud and clear, that their wants and needs are not worthy of being addressed. Girls are taught that their appearance is far more important than their comfort and ability to function. They learn that they will be disadvantaged and discriminated against because they are a girl.
At my children’s old school, where girls were forced into dresses from Grade 1, they surveyed the girls in grades 4, 5, and 6 in relation to their uniform. 51% of the girls said they did not like the dress, and 81% of the girls said they would wear shorts and pants if they were available. After doing this survey, the principal decided that he would not change the school uniform.
Right there we have a very important message for those girls; please tell us what you want, so we can ignore you, because what you say and what you need is irrelevant to us.
Girl’s voices are being ignored daily in schools around the country; they have been ignored for decades over uniforms. We at Girls’ Uniform Agenda have had enough. Schools that continue to deny girls the right to wear shorts and pants will be challenged and brought to the attention of education departments and ministers.
What are some of the negative impacts wearing dresses and skirts can have on girls if they aren’t given other options?
There are many negative impacts for girls that can occur from being forced into a dress or skirt, and being denied the option of wearing shorts and pants. These include:
- Physical health: Research shows that girls who wear dresses to school do less physical activity than girls in shorts and pants. In addition, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that girls do significantly less exercise than boys, and that this becomes most pronounced when girls enter high school (right at the time the majority of schools require skirts and dresses).
- Psychological health: A number of girls struggle with body image issues in adolescence. Girls are taught that their looks are more important than other skills or attributes, including their ability to be active. Girls are expected to modify their behaviour in accordance with a dress code in ways that boys are not.
- Ability to learn: Many occasions arise at school for which the wearing of skirts is impractical, for instance playing games on breaks, clearing up classrooms or doing activities on the floor. These require girls to ensure they are ‘being modest’ and not flashing their underpants. Boys don’t have their learning hampered by such considerations.
- Practical issues: In cold weather, all students need to be warm and comfortable so they are free to focus on their learning. Similarly, students need to be cool and comfortable in warm weather. It would seem logical to extend the principle of comfortable and weather-appropriate clothing to girls.
- Issues around conflict: Many parents and schoolgirls find themselves in conflict with the leadership team over school uniform requirements. We have heard from many women who endured multiple detentions rather than relinquishing their right to wear shorts and pants to school. Punishing and chastising girls because they are wearing shorts or trousers can negatively impact on girls’ self-esteem, their sense of justice, their learning, and their relationship with the school and education system. Sometimes students end up leaving schools where they have friends and connections due to the extended conflict with the school over uniforms. These conflicts undermine the important connection that needs to be established between schools and families in order to support a child’s learning and development.
What can we, as parents and supporters, do to support Girls’ Uniform Agenda and to help achieve uniform equality for all school kids?
Change will occur when greater numbers of parents and school kids demand that it does. For too long, parents and girls have been silenced by the power of those in schools, and it is time we find our courage and stare them down. Some key ways to do this include:
- Sign the petition calling for pants and shorts to be mandated for all girls in all schools around Australia.
- Access the Girls’ Uniform Agenda website and download our letters and information sheets. These can be edited for your circumstances and sent to principals and P&Cs/P&Fs/school councils, outlining why you want to see changes to uniform policy.
- Meet with your principal and attend your school’s P&C/P&F/school council meeting to discuss the issue of adding shorts and pants to your school’s uniform policy. Check out the “Why Options?” page on the Girls’ Uniform Agenda website to arm yourself with research and strong arguments.
- Download our template letters for the Education, Health and Women’s ministers in your state, use them to tell your story and send them to each minister. The more letters they receive, the more likely they are to understand this issue is important and requires them to act. Posting personalised letters, rather than just emailing them, seems to receive a better response.
- If you have tried to create change in your school and have been refused, consider lodging a complaint with the Anti-Discrimination body in your state. We have information and links here to assist you. If you decide to lodge a complaint, email us at Girls’ Uniform Agenda so we can support and guide you.
- Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and share our posts. A key avenue to creating change is increasing awareness of this issue, and getting more voices to join the cause.
- Write a case study for our website. We are collecting the stories of women, parents, and schoolgirls across the country who want to see this change happen. You can email us to receive a copy of the template to help you do this. Case studies are very useful in highlighting the “realness” of this issue when we meet with politicians, principals, and others with the power to make change.
#IBOT @ Capturing Life.
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