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9 March 2016

Trousers for All: why are girls still being required to wear skirts to school?

The far more revolutionary campaign, of course, would be one that wanted boys to be allowed to wear skirts, too.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Who wears the trousers in your relationship? In my case, it’s definitely my partner. I’ve always been a skirt and dress person. Unnecessary cloth-based leg separation just isn’t my thing.

Nonetheless, while I question both the practical and stylistic merits of trousers and shorts, I will defend to the death the right of other women to make their own sartorial choices. For this reason I am broadly in favour of Trousers for All, a UK-wide group campaigning to give girls the option of wearing trousers as part of their school uniform.

While most schools already permit this, there remain a number who do not. This week, as part of the University of Manchester’s social justice festival JustFest, academics Dr Katia Chornik and Professor Claire Hale will argue that this is in breach of the Department of Education’s School Uniform document and the Equality Act 2010. “Both documents,” says Chornik, “emphasise the need to avoid uniforms which are expensive and which treat one sex less favourably than the other. In our view the practice of banning trousers for girls is gender discrimination and prejudice against females”. But is it really?

Certainly, the 2010 Equality Act states that uniform policies should not discriminate on the basis of sex. However, it also maintains that “differences in dress requirements for girls and boys are standard, and where they don’t have significantly more detrimental effects on one sex or the other they are unlikely to be regarded as discriminatory”. The trouble comes with deciding what constitutes a “significantly more detrimental effect” (while not getting distracted by the annoying implication that a mildly detrimental effect is a-okay). It’s very difficult to do this in a truly objective way, which leads me to think that perhaps the act itself has got things the wrong way round.

When differentiating between male and female pupils, the point, surely, should not be to ask how harmful the effects of such differentiation could be, but whether the differentiation is necessary in the first place. When it comes to withholding the right of one sex to wear of trousers, the answer surely has to be a clear, resounding “no”. Women and girls wear trousers in all sorts of situations, to no ill effects. Indeed, if we look at it from this angle, it becomes clear that sex discrimination is not some potential side-effect of an otherwise harmless gendering process. Sex discrimination – the placing of one sex in a position of disadvantage in relation to the other – is the entire point.

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As is the case with so many seemingly trivial points of differentiation between men and women, what matters is not the thing in itself, but what it signifies. If the right to wear trousers had no broader meaning, women would not have had to fight for it, but fight for it they have. Trousers are associated with male privilege and dominance (hence the question “who wears the trousers?”). Female politicians were not permitted to wear them on the US Senate floor until 1993. It was 2013 before an (ultimately rarely used) bylaw requiring women in Paris to ask permission from city authorities before “dressing as men” was finally revoked. Women in Malawi were not permitted to wear trousers at all between 1965 and 1994 and still face threats and attacks for doing so. This is not about style or gender as play, but power, and it remains the case even if we are discussing something as seemingly minor and mundane as school uniform.

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Numerous studies have shown that stereotype threat – a situation in which people feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes pertaining to their social group – matters a great deal when considering gender and education. Simply being reminded that one is the social construct “boy” or “girl”, as opposed to just “a pupil”, can affect an individual’s perception of his or her own ability and response to particular subject areas (eg “girls are no good at maths”, “boys don’t read books” etc). A school should be the last place where gendered codes which have already been broken down elsewhere are suddenly reintroduced. For a girl to have to wear a skirt in the classroom when she can wear trousers elsewhere sends a very particular message to her. She is not simply a learner; she is a girl-learner, confined by unspoken rules which limit her individual potential and constrain her social interactions.

This is not the only reason why Trousers for All wish for the rules to be changed and I must confess to not being fully behind some of the others. While I know it to be true that “some girls do not like to display their legs because they consider them either too fat or too thin” (indeed, I was one of them), I hardly think permitting them to cover up is the ideal solution. More worryingly, the “personal safety” justification – “It is easier to run away wearing trousers, they are more difficult for an attacker to get off and school trousers, while smart, can hardly be described as a provocative form of clothing” – seems to me to play into the hands of victim-blamers. “Why was she wearing such a short skirt?” becomes “why was she wearing a skirt at all?”.

What really bothers me, though, is the one-sidedness of the approach. Why just trousers? Why not skirts, too? Why is it that, yet again, whatever the boys are doing is seen as the default thing, to which the girls should necessarily aspire? Why not campaign for no differentiation whatsoever in school uniform requirements?

I think we all know the answer to this. We don’t want to see boys in skirts or dresses, demeaning themselves, being “girly”. Indeed, were we to see a boy in a dress, we’d probably assume he wasn’t a boy at all. The more we broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman or a girl, the more rigid and entrenched our understanding of boyhood and manhood becomes (even in David Walliams’ The Boy In The Dress, the main character’s continued inclusion in the category “male” seems to be justified by the fact that, dress or no dress, he’s still brilliant at football. Thank God for that!).

I’m all for trousers for all, but let’s have skirts and dresses for all, too. This seems to me far more revolutionary, given that the “no skirts for boys” rule applies far beyond the school gates, and the only reason for its existence seems to be to assuage male anxiety about being a “proper” man. As a fully paid-up member of Team Skirt, I say let’s deal with this nonsense once and for all.

Throw caution to the wind! Relish the freedom of having no superfluous fabric between your thighs! Come on, men. You have nothing to lose but your Corby trouser presses.