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Forcing every student to wear trousers won’t make schools more equal

The topic of gender-neutral school uniforms, diversity and equality never seems to be far from the news. And it’s a topic that seems to rile people up for strange reasons. Rogena Sterling looks at the myths and truths around school uniforms and gender diversity and equality.

Last month, UK media reported that skirts had been banned at schools across England. The ensuing debate threw up plenty of questions about the thinking behind the ban: Was this about gender-neutral uniforms? Was it about inclusivity of transgender students? Was banning skirts in fact sexist?

As the myths and misinformation began to pile up it seemed clear there needed to be a better discussion of how school uniforms can be used to encourage equality and inclusivity.

So let’s start with the big question: What are gender-neutral uniforms? And why would a school use them?

It’s not a new initiative for education departments and schools to require gender-neutral uniforms. Writing in the Guardian, columnist Chitra Ramaswamy argues that a gender-neutral uniform policy makes sense where bullying is rife and there is a commitment to equality and inclusion of transgender pupils. The reasons seem obvious, she says: “The changes in uniform policy are attempting to address bigger issues – misogyny, upskirting and sexualisation.” But she thinks that banning skirts is not the answer: “a gender-neutral approach would be much wiser”.

But is there such a thing as a gender-neutral uniform? Quoting Ian McEwen’s novella The Cement Garden, Guardian columnist Ellie Mae O’Hagan considers the mentality that leads schools to make boys’ uniforms the default: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s OK to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”

Trousers are not gender-neutral. To take that stand is to enforce a modern masculine ideal – a Western one – as standard. Until recently, in many nations around the world, males and females all wore skirts. That was the norm. Trousers may be more suitable in some cases in sport or in the playground, but they definitely are not gender-neutral.

There is simply no such thing as a gender-neutral uniform.

The second myth that must be challenged is that banning skirts promotes equality and decency. Let’s take the equality issue first. Playing sport is not a uniform equality issue: most schools have a separate sport uniform that usually includes shorts or trousers for girls. And although some girls may feel more comfortable in trousers on the playground, it does not mean that all do or should.

The media coverage of the UK skirt ban also noted that one of its aims was to be inclusive of a small but growing number of transgender students. However, the complete ban on skirts in favour of ‘gender-neutral’ uniform (ie, trousers) is not the answer for transgender students – in fact, it’s likely that being unable to wear skirts could further alienate many such students. On the contrary, students should be permitted to wear a uniform that is chosen based on their gender identity.

Some schools have taken a different approach to transgender equality. At Lincoln High School and Beckenham Primary School in New Zealand, students can simply choose which uniform they’re most comfortable in. Making everyone wear the same thing is one type of equality, but it is not the type of equality being sought. Sure, some girls may want to wear trousers, but that does not mean that all girls do – and denying skirts to transgender girls who want to wear them is only going to do more harm than good.

The second issue is that of decency and the length of skirts. Some schools have banned skirts because they consider them “’undignified and embarrassing’ for staff and visitors when girls sit on the floor in assemblies and drama classes”. Other situations in which skirts might be deemed unsuitable, according to Chitra Ramaswamy, include school playgrounds and the “sexualised and vaguely threatening atmosphere” of secondary schools. Here in New Zealand, a hemline inspection was implemented at Henderson High School in 2016 on the basis that too-short skirts could be a distraction for male teachers and students. As one of the girls who protested the inspection said, she had no problem with the rules themselves but did take issue with the reason behind them: that girls’ bodies were “sexual and distracting.”

As Ramaswamy says, there’s a “Victorian whiff” about these school uniform policies. A line can be drawn from suggestions that skirts help sexualise female bodies all the way to ‘rape culture’ and the victim blaming of those who have suffered sexual assault. Besides, if any teacher – or student for that matter – sees a girl’s leg in any way ‘too sexual’, then as a petition against one of the UK skirt bans notes, “they should be sacked immediately for gross misconduct.” Banning skirts is not the answer to the sexualisation of girls – doing so merely enhances its negative impacts.

There is certainly a mix of views on this, but surely we can all agree that school uniforms should respect the dignity for all children while not leaving any out. Rather than forcing all pupils to wear trousers, students should all have the option of wearing skirts or trousers, regardless of gender.

A good example is Dunedin North Intermediate, which has introduced a new non-gendered uniform code. Their uniform can be worn by all students, and includes five options: shorts, long shorts, a kilt, trousers, or culottes. Meanwhile, some Japanese schools allow students to “freely choose whether to wear skirts or slacks or ties or ribbons with blazers, regardless of their sex.”

I believe this is the answer to issues of equality for students. Non-gendered uniforms are based on dignity and choice. As author and activist Naomi Wolf says, if everyone is offered the option of both skirts and trousers, everyone can find his, her or their comfortable fit.

This is true equality, in which all students have the dignity of choice.

Dr Rogena Sterling is a specialist in Identity, Intersex, Equality and Human Rights currently researching Māori law and the environment at the University of Waikato.

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