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School uniform changes would have a big impact

April 18 2017 By Mary Barry, Our Watch CEO

When I was young, riding my bike to school in my uniform was not my favourite pastime. The reason for this didn't lie in my lack of athleticism; I loved sport. It's because I had to wear a skirt.

While my brothers cycled with me in their own uniforms – warm, long trousers – I lagged behind because my skirt flapped, got dirty from the wheels and I was scared that it would get tangled in the chain.

Jumping, climbing trees and crossing legs on the mat were all things made more difficult by wearing a skirt. At school this piece of clothing was compulsory for me, and nobody questioned it. But in practice it was restrictive. It just meant I wasn't as able as my brothers to do and enjoy all the physical activities which they did with ease.

This is why when I read that a school in New Zealand has introduced five uniform options – including shorts, long pants, culottes and a kilt, and that all pupils are free to choose any option regardless of their sex – I jumped for joy. The option to choose whatever uniform style you want is a revelation to me, but when I think back on my own childhood, it's one that's long overdue.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. The New Zealand school acted after requests from pupils themselves, following in the footsteps of many schools in Britain. And here in Australia, a Melbourne mother, Simone Cariss, last year created an online petition to call for the same uniforms for both girls and boys, which has now been signed by almost 20,000 people.

Cariss stated that her "daughter, like many other girls, simply wants the choice to wear pants like half of her peers, with the warmth and freedom to be active at school and travelling to/from school. She constantly asks 'why can't I wear pants like the boys?' 

'Because you're a girl' is not something I am prepared to say to my six-year-old daughter. A daughter who I have raised to believe she can do and conquer anything, regardless of her gender, and that she can like what she wants to like and not what gender stereotypes dictate she should like."

Cariss also said that compelling girls to wear skirts is discrimination, and I can see her point. Discrimination is being treated less favourably than a person of the opposite sex would be in similar circumstances. And indirect discrimination is when a rule or policy has an unfair effect on people of a particular sex. Personally, that's what it felt like to me as a school girl! Continuing to enforce limiting clothing regulations on girls is one of many ways they are reminded of their unequal status. It is seemingly "small" issues like this that, taken together, create a broader landscape of gender inequality across our society.

Further, from our work at Our Watch, we know that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that one of the results of widespread gender inequality is high levels of disrespect and violence against women. That should be reason enough to start challenging these kinds of gender stereotypes.

We also know that imposing rigid gender stereotypes on girls and women, and on boys and men can be extremely limiting. Contrary to the stereotype, girls are just as physically active as boys – the fantastic achievements of the women in this year's inaugural AFL Women's League should be evidence enough of that. Just as the sports world is waking up to this, so should the rest of society.

And it's time we also recognised that rigid ideas, stereotypes and "rules" about masculinity also restrict boys and men. Being stoic, tough and not showing emotion are still traits associated with the stereotype of "the Aussie bloke". The potentially harmful impacts of these unrealistic expectations on the mental health and wellbeing of Australian men and boys are increasingly being recognised. At worst, they may even contribute to the high rates of suicide among men, as suggested by a recent Melbourne University study.

But we can change this – a refreshing new approach to uniforms is just one example of how small changes can have a big impact, helping to break down restrictive stereotypes and enabling all children to be free to discover the world without unnecessary barriers. What better place to start than in schools? And what better time than now?

This piece was originally published in The Age.

Media contact:

Hannah Grant, Media and Ambassador Program Manager, Our Watch: 0448 844 930 or hannah.grant@ourwatch.org.au

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“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.”

Read guides for reporting about violence against women and their children.

About Our Watch

Our Watch’s purpose is to raise awareness and engage policy-makers and the Australian community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.

To do this the organisation works to increase gender equality and respect in all aspects of everyday life, such as through schools; workplaces; media; sporting organisations; social marketing, and developing and influencing public policy.

Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.