Should Australian schools force girls to wear skirts?

Article by Natasha Robinson and Rebecca Armitage /
September 08, 2017 /
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Girls around the country are being denied the option of wearing pants or shorts to school, as state governments refuse to require schools to offer an alternative to the dress.

Key points:

  • Mums are pushing for their daughters to be allowed to wear shorts to school
  • Western Australia recently changed its uniform policy so public school girls can wear shorts
  • Other states leave it up to individual schools to decide what female students can wear

A national movement for school uniform equality gathered renewed momentum this week after the West Australian Government made it mandatory for schools to offer girls the choice of wearing pants or a dress to school.

Although most public schools offer a range of options to girls, there are still hundreds of schools around the country that do not.

Research on girls’ activity levels and school uniforms showed that girls did less physical activity at recess and lunchtime when they were wearing a dress or skirt as opposed to pants.

Girls deliberately sat out lunchtime games like basketball because they were worried about their skirts flying up, a 2012 study by the University of Wollongong found.

“Time and time again, girls say their uniform inhibits them. They say, ‘When I have to wear a skirt or I have to wear a dress, I don’t do as much exercise’,” said Dr Amanda Mergler, who runs the group Girls Uniform Agenda.

University of Melbourne Senior Lecturer Lauren Rosewarne said this was important given the national agenda for girls to be more physically active.

“If we want to encourage girls to be more physically active, we need to create ways for them to do this more comfortably,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“Pants and shorts are more comfortable than dresses or skirts.”

‘It’s archaic that girls should have to wear a dress’

Dr Mergler was inspired to set up Girls Uniform Agenda, which is agitating for pants to be available for all girls, after her own daughter was denied the option.

She met so much resistance to changing the uniform policy at six-year-old Sophie’s previous school that the family pulled her out.

“Girls couldn’t play and run around freely and swing upside down on the monkey bars. Teachers would sanction girls about being modest. I really wanted my daughter to wear a pair of shorts,” Dr Mergler said.

Sydney mother Alison Boston’s daughter Sadie starts school next year, but none of the three public schools closest to the family’s home on the lower north shore offer pants for girls.

“I think in 2017, it’s quite archaic to be thinking that girls should have to wear a dress at any time. There’s nowhere else in Australia where she will be forced to wear a dress. Schools really are out of step with modern society and modern expectations of women,” she said.

Queensland mum Lizzy Edwards is currently attempting to secure choice for her eight-year-old daughter Cecilia, who cannot wear bike pants under her dress because she had abdominal surgery.

“She said to me one day when she was wearing her school dress, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll have a no handstand day today’,” Ms Edwards said.

“It just struck me as unfair.”

In the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, Roxana Zusfacar is preparing to explain to her daughter Miriam, who wears pants every day at preschool, why she will not be able to do the same when she goes to kindergarten.

“Miriam is very excited about starting school. But when she asks, ‘Mum, why can’t girls wear pants at some schools?’ I really can’t think of any good reason. I think it is ridiculous and unfair,” she said.

Girls’ school to introduce pants after feedback

Canberra Girls Grammar School (CGGS) will introduce pants as a uniform option after consulting with students and their parents earlier this year.

“A lot of them say that would be fantastic,” said CGGS principal Anne Coutts.

Ms Coutts also dismissed claims that wearing a skirt to school prepared girls for the workforce.

“I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. Why should women be constrained to wearing skirts at work?” she said.

“It seems to me that women are asked to wear clothes for adornment and men wear clothes for practicality and I don’t see that there should be that distinction.”

WA leads the charge for uniform equality

Western Australia’s Education Minister Sue Ellery recently asked the state’s education department to amend its Dress Codes for Students policy in response to a plea from 11-year-old schoolgirl Sofia Myhre.

Sofia’s school had already changed its uniform policy to allow choice, but Sofia wanted the same for all girls.

The change means that individual schools in WA will continue to set their own dress codes, but must offer shorts or pants as an option for girls.

However, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales governments all said it was up to individual schools to decide.

“Local school communities … are best placed to determine school uniforms,” a spokesman for the Queensland Education Department said in a statement to the ABC.

The New South Wales Education Department said its schools must adopt a uniform that meets community expectations, though pants were not required for girls.

“The department’s current policy mandates that school uniforms are to meet legislative requirements covering work health and safety, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination,” a NSW Education Department spokesman said.

Victoria said most schools there offered girls the options of wearing shorts or pants.

“It is important that we encourage all students to be physically active and choose attire that they can play sport in comfortably,” a spokesman for Victoria’s Education Minister James Merlino said.