Today, I have a special guest post from Dr Amanda Mergler, co-founder of Girls Uniform Agenda. Girls Uniform Agenda campaigns for young girls to have the right to a choice of uniform, including pants, like boys have. This is something I’ve written about in the past and it’s interesting to see what the legislation says versus what is actually in practice.

Dr Mergler from Girls Uniform Agenda:

What girls can, and cannot wear to school has been an area of contention for some time. In public opinion and media reports, there is overwhelming support that girls should be offered shorts and pants as options in their everyday school uniform. We at Girls’ Uniform Agenda argue that all girls in all schools should be provided with a range of uniform options, which must include shorts and pants.

In Australia in 2017, some schools offer girls a range of options in their formal uniforms, while a large number do not. The haphazard way in which choice for girls may or may not be offered highlights the need for clear legislative and education policy in this area.

Discrimination.

In order to ensure that those within the education system in Australia uphold equitable practices, various federal and state legislation and policy have been created. Federally, the most pertinent piece of legislation is the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. This act defines direct discrimination as occurring when someone receives less favourable treatment on the ground of a protected attribute (such as their sex).

Girls Uniform Agenda- sexism

Similarly, each state in Australia has its own Act that explicitly defines discrimination. While the wording may differ slightly, each of these Acts outlines that it is unlawful to treat someone less favourably based on their sex (among other attributes). It could be argued that schools that do not provide choices for girls in school uniform options are in breach of this piece of legislation, as girls are being treated less favourably than boys by not having access to shorts and long pants.

The many ways in which refusing to allow girls to wear shorts and pants is a disadvantage includes 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 By State.

While legislation is designed to govern what is considered acceptable behaviour and treatment across society in general, education departments generate policies that guide what educators do in schools. In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for ensuring the delivery and regulation of schooling to all children of school age in their jurisdictions. They determine curriculums, register schools, regulate school activities and are directly responsible for the administration of government schools. As such, each state and territory has its own policy on school uniforms, and these offer varying levels of clarity as to the level of choice that needs to be afforded to girls.

In Western Australia for example, the Department of Education has a Dress Code for Students – Policy and Procedures. In this document it is stated that “dress codes should meet local circumstances, the need of individual students and general safety and equity standards. Consideration should be given to clothing that is affordable, comfortable, made from easy care fabric, appropriate for activity, and suitable for all body shapes”.

The Australian Capital Territory Education Directorate has a more detailed policy called the Dress Standard and Uniforms in Canberra Public Schools policy, with additional guidelines. These guidelines state that:

  • school based uniform policies should have standards which apply to all students equally, regardless of gender identity;
  • school based uniform policies should promote freedom of choice for all students by categorising options by clothing type rather than by gender, for example, shorts, trousers, skirts, rather than boy’s uniform/ girl’s uniform.
  • of the items which a school designates as a school uniform, limiting a student’s choice of school uniform items to dress in due to gender may infringe the ACT Discrimination Act (1991).
  • uniforms should provide all students with equal access to the full range of school activities.

In Queensland, the Department of Education and Training (DET) Policy and Procedure Register, Student Dress Code states that “student dress codes…are consistent with health and safety considerations and anti-discrimination legislation. Student dress codes offer gender neutral uniform options for all students”. Despite being written as if this is the case in all schools governed by DET, we see in Queensland that a large number of schools do not offer ‘gender neutral’ options to students. Indeed, the overwhelming number of state secondary schools require girls to wear dresses or skirts, with no other option provided.

Thus it appears that Australia has legislation and policies in place that expect schools to provide choices for girls at school. Enforcement of these policies however is clearly lacking, and we would be well advised to put pressure on education departments and politicians to require compliance from schools. In addition, it is advisable that education departments make their policies as explicit as possible, as arguments around what constitutes ‘gender neutral’ can derail schools as they attempt to cater for their students.

Girls Uniform Agenda- why isn't the legislation enforced?

One wonders how and why schools have been allowed to get away with flouting legislative and policy requirements. Perhaps the strength of tradition and continuing the status-quo has kept us blind to uniform requirements that no longer serve children at school. What will be powerful in the struggle to change uniform choices for girls is the groundswell of public sentiment that pushes back against what institutions stipulate, as we come to understand that these sentiments are harmful to some in society.

In addition, we should not shy away from the power of the anti-discrimination bodies in each state and the law. Indeed, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (2007) recognised gender differences in school uniform policies as an area where schools were at risk of being sued under discrimination law. As the court of public opinion continues to highlight that refusing girls the choice of shorts and pants at schools is unacceptable, perhaps a legal challenge in a court of law will see this issue resolved across the country.

For more information and resources, visit the Girls Uniform Agenda website.

Contact GUA at enquiries@girlsuniformagenda.org

Keep an eye out for my upcoming interview with Dr Mergler to learn more about Girls Uniform Agenda!

 

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  • LydiaCLee

    We’re at a public school so there’s a uni sex option of shorts (not sure about the long pants, maybe), but it’s also flexi for MTF trans kids pre transition to wear the skirt – everyone one wears the same polo shirt. Or maybe there are different cuts (I just realised they probably are different) but they look the same. The grief comes from the black shoes – kids want to wear sneakers. And a note came home that you’d be sent home if not in uniform. But I don’t think there’s a gender issue on which part of the uniform you want to wear

    • LydiaCLee

      That’s NSW, obvs

  • I so agree on the option of pants for girls. I went to school many many decades ago and we were allowed to wear long trousers in winter but our other uniforms (sport and general) required skirts / dresses. I used to play a lot of basketball so lived in basketball briefs / knickers so felt comfortable wearing them under a short tunic for sport or (later) those ugly wrap pleated skirts, but in retrospect I can see that would be confronting for many.

  • Jo Tracey

    I changed schools every 2 ½ years as a kid (we moved a lot with Dad’s job) & every school in country NSW I went to (public, co-ed) offered a choice of pants or shorts for girls in addition to the dresses and tunic. In fact, at Bombala in winter there was no dress offering – long pants was it. I didn’t come across the no long pants thing until my final year of high school when we moved back to Sydney. It’s something I saw with my girl going through school as well – no pants options for girls – yet friends in country towns reported that their child had an option. Go figure. #TeamLovinLife

  • Kathy Marris

    Believe it or not when I was at high school in the 1970s my high school in Bendigo, Victoria introduced long pants as part of our Winter uniform. I thought that was pretty advanced for back then. My daughter went to a private school and there was no option for long pants or shorts, except on sports days. I agree it is discriminatory and not at all sensible when girls are just as active as boys at school. There should be no discrimination in this day and age. #TeamLovinLife

  • I love that the ACT refers to “regardless of gender identity”. That’s very cool.

  • I don’t see why girls can’t wear pants as part of their uniform, if they choose to. Our school has this for the sports uniform, but not the day uniform … yet. #TeamLovinLife

  • Magda J Mitchell

    A very interesting read. It really is such a backward school of thought, that girls and boys should wear different uniforms. I am all for removing any gender based segregation. This is definately something I will consider when selecting schools for my babes. x

  • At my high school we had an option of wearing pants instead of the skirt in winter, which I loved the first couple of years as it kept my legs warm – but then it wasn’t “cool” to wear them anymore so I preferred to freeze my butt off rather than be branded a “dag”. Stoopid teenagers!!!