Schools should be at the forefront of promoting gender equality, not reinforcing gender stereotyping with their uniform policies or dress codes.
Dress codes have always been a contentious subject and, along with school uniforms, they have caused much controversy recently. In the UK, we had a petition and a debate in Parliament about the issue of compulsory high heels for women. We had schoolboys wearing skirts to school in the summer, as they were not allowed to share the comfort of the girls by wearing shorts. To top it all, we had a ‘rebellion’ in the House of Commons and the House of Lords which resulted in a declaration that ties were no longer an essential part of male business dress.
In the US, we have many reports of “sexist” school dress codes said to disadvantage girls by regulating, for example, skirt length. In the UK, where formal school uniforms are more common, girls generally have more choice than boys, with boys often being forced into long trousers and ties, while girls nearly always have the choice of skirts or trousers and often optional or no ties.
Recently in the the US, we saw the nonsensical accusation that the Senate dress code is reminiscent of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, because it forces women into uncomfortably hot dresses with sleeves. Calling the Senate’s women’s dress codes “sexist” completely ignores the fact that the male dress code is much more restrictive, imposing, as it does, jackets and ties on the men. There can surely be no question that jackets and ties are hotter and more uncomfortable than dresses with sleeves!! We need to see some balance in the debate on dress codes.
What should schools do?
In schools, the whole issue of gendered school uniform is becoming increasingly important with the growing number of transgender and non-binary students. By both law and common courtesy, these students have to be treated fairly in schools. While this certainly creates some difficulties for schools, such as the provision of suitable changing and toilet facilities, there is absolutely no need for uniform to be one of these problems.
The solution is so blindingly obvious that it is depressing that it meets with so much reluctance and opposition. Schools should implement gender neutral dress codes or uniforms. Head Teachers should decide the general appearance, but both boys and girls should be able to choose from long trousers, skirts or smart uniform shorts. Other rules like hair length, jewellery and wearing ties should be the same for both sexes.
This is not rocket science and many forward thinking Head Teachers are already implementing such policies. Girls already have most of these choices and the greatest obstacle to gender neutral dress codes or uniforms in the UK is the obsessive insistence on forcing schoolboys into long trousers and ties. Women and girls won the skirt/trouser battle decades ago and both trousers and skirts are now acceptable wear for women. Today, very few schools, and even fewer outdated employers, force women to wear skirts against their wishes. On the other hand, the vast majority of secondary (i.e. “high”) schools still make boys wear ties and forbid them from wearing comfortable shorts in hot weather.
Do gender neutral dress codes imply boys and girls should dress and look the same?
No, gender neutral dress codes do not mean forcing boys and girls (or men and women, for that matter) to look the same, but only giving both sexes equal choice. Currently, in most schools, it is a relatively easy matter for girls to effectively dress as boys, if they wish to do so, as they can put on trousers and wear their hair short. They can do this purely as a matter of choice or comfort without having to resort to ‘coming out’ as non-binary or transgender. Boys, on the other hand, face much more intransigence if they wish to stray from the conventional masculine appearance . If they wish to be comfortable in the summer, they are forced to ‘rebel’ by wearing skirts as they are almost never allowed to wear shorts and they are still almost always forced to wear ties, even if the girls do not need to do so. Some schools, in an astonishing curtailment of self-expression, still force boys to have short hair.
Schools should play their part in breaking the mould for gender stereotypes.
In our society, schools should be models of gender equality and should be doing their utmost to overcome gender stereotypes, not reinforce them. If the suggestion in bold is adopted, we would not see thousands of schoolboys in skirts, although those who wish to wear them would be able to do so more easily. We would, however, see both boys and girls wearing smart, uniform short trousers in the summer, rather than the boys having to resort to wearing skirts to be comfortable. Finally, we would see ties either declared an essential part of the uniform for both sexes, or assigned to the rubbish bin of history for both boys and girls.