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School Uniforms: The Great Gender Divide

School uniforms - gender divideThere’s a buzz growing towards mutiny at my kids’ school and it’s all about the girls’ school uniform. Mums are rallying against the unfairness of girls being made to wear formal dresses while the boys kick around in shorts and a polo shirt. Come winter, the girls will be in tights (or long socks if they don’t mind freezing), a white cotton blouse and a pinafore tunic – two words that should surely have been left behind in the 1800s.

So, the mums have got a point. The girls’ uniform seems to carry the weight of all the formality of yesteryear schooling as the boys’ march happily in the modern world. Why is this the case?

A new Australian government health campaign called “Girls Make Your Move” was launched earlier this month. The campaign urges girls to get active and have fun and it was sparked by the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey 2014-2015 finding that girls are only half as physically active as their male peers. Ouch.

The advertising spots launched with the campaign show strong, powerful, young girls and teens getting together to pow their way to fitness. It will come as no surprise that not a single one of them is wearing a blouse and pinafore.

It stands to reason that when you want to be active, you dress in super-comfy clothes and most women do not opt for a knee-length skirt when they exercise. So, picture the school playground on any given day and it’s no surprise to me why the boys are all out there smashing it at rugby while the girls are sitting or walking as they chat in groups, occasionally adding a game of tips or elastics into the mix.

I think we set our girls up to believe that they’re not supposed to be as active as the boys and it starts the year they go to school. Getting stuck into a game of soccer, gymnastics or anything more taxing than a promenade around the top playground, invariably means flashing your undies, and everybody knows that’s social suicide at school.

What the mums at my school are advocating for is an entirely gender-neutral uniform. Shorts and a cotton polo for everyone, with maybe the option of a skort for the girly-girls who really do love a skirt. Lace up shoes that let a kid move and not a pinafore in sight. Why don’t schools have girls’ uniforms like that? Our sports uniform is entirely gender-neutral, but our everyday uniform is a reminder that boys need clothes they can ‘do thing in’ and girls, well, where I’m standing I suppose they just need to look old-fashioned and keep their knees together.

I’m actually a big fan of school uniforms. Quite apart from putting a kibosh on having to maintain a fashionable wardrobe for school (oh the pressure!), uniforms make life so much simpler for parents. It’s a sports day, we wear this; it’s a non-sports day, we wear that. I just don’t get why the girls’ uniform has to be so much more formal than the boys’. Most public primary schools ditched the tie for boys yonks ago, but nothing much has changed in girls’ uniforms for generations. In fact, the uniform my girls wear is actually identical to the uniform I wore at my Catholic primary school in the early 1980s, down to the same check material, annoyingly hard to iron fabric and even the useless tie thingy at the front. We also had a blouse and pinafore combination in the winter time… something I found physically uncomfortable as a girl and socially uncomfortable now.

See, on the one hand, we’re urging girls to grow strong and healthy through active play and exercise, and on the other we’re dressing them in uniforms that girls have always despised. Some of the mums at our school maintain that their girls haven’t complained about the uniform, so it doesn’t particularly bother them. I get that – my own girls haven’t complained either, even my ‘not a girly-girl’ girl who hasn’t voluntarily worn a dress or skirt since she was three years old. See, it’s not necessarily the kind of thing most kids are going to complain about: once you get them in a group, kids are remarkably good at doing as their told and maintaining the status quo. In addition, saying to the girls “oh, you can wear the boys’ uniform” doesn’t cut it either: a gender-neutral uniform should start out as exactly that. A new uniform introduced for both boys and girls to wear as they choose.

Like most things in our kids’ lives, it’s up to us, the parents, to guide our kids towards. We need to decide if it’s something we think is important enough to get vocal about. Personally, I’m rather tired of feminism seemingly beginning in adulthood – it’s what we learn when we’re young that really counts. I reckon it’s time for the Australian government to make the necessary changes to our school policies so that young girls start out on an even playing field. Preferably running.

How do you feel about girls’ uniforms or uniforms in general?

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