Another gender gap: Uniforms preventing girls from being as active as boys

Another gender gap: School uniforms preventing girls from being as active as boys


Primary school girls have long complained that their school uniforms prohibit them from moving freely, and it’s a problem that’s created yet another gender gap: participation discrepancies in physical activity between boys and girls.

According to a new University of Newcastle study, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, that activity gap looks like this: Just 52 per cent of primary-aged girls are meeting recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity over a school day, compared with 70 per cent of boys.

Emma Kearney, an AFLW player and the 2017 Best & Fairest for the Western Bulldogs, told Girls Uniform Agenda that when she was in primary school, she felt it was: “A pain playing both footy and cricket in the dress.”

“I was always so excited when we had PE, because I could wear my PE uniform for the whole day,” she said. “In the PE uniform I wasn’t restricted when I played and I didn’t show my undies when I was bowling at cricket. I was always much happier when I could wear pants to school.”

Today, Kearney is a PE teacher and a WBBL player for the Melbourne Stars. She adds that she has seen the damage that enforced uniforms have had on many young girls.

“The uniforms are completely restrictive which discourages girls from being active, something that has been an ongoing issue for quite some time.”

For girls, already told in many ways that it’s “un-feminine” to be active and play sports, the clothing they’re being asked to wear every day is not making things any easier.

Despite a growing number of public schools changing their uniform regulations to be more gender neutral, several private schools continue to require girls to wear dresses and stockings that are restrictive, and boys to wear ties and button-up shirts.

In 2019, Queensland followed several other states making it mandatory to allow girls to wear pants in their state schools. New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia had previously changed its laws on the matter. 

The team from The University of Newcastle that released this study, hopes to give schools further impetus to re-evaluate gendered traditions regarding uniforms with an upcoming project to investigate that activity gap further.

The large-scale study will investigate whether primary school students are more active if they wear their sports uniforms.

Researchers plan to ask students at twelve schools across NSW to wear their sports uniform every day, while a control group of the same number will wear the normal uniform. Students’ fitness levels will then be tracked over a year, and their physical activity over the course of one week.

Lead researcher, Nicole McCarthy, told SMH’s education reporter, Jordan Baker, that public discourse on ‘ready to play’ is meaningless if the attire for children is not appropriate for such activities. 

McCarthy, who is doing a PhD at the University of Newcastle, has assessed a number of school communities and found 78 per cent of parents and two-thirds of teachers are keen to support a policy that allow children to wear sports uniforms on a daily basis.

Principals, on the other hand, were not so enthusiastic. A mere 38 percent of them said they supported the idea. 

She said that the biggest barrier is the around school image, formal occasions and the appropriateness of wearing more active-style uniforms. She said that while they understand the important to schools, expecially around idenity, it might be time to challenge uniform providers to make more attractive and smart looking sportswear.

In 2019, Plan International Australia Youth Activist, Milly Grestle penned a piece for Women’s Agenda, claiming that “we can combat typical gender roles by introducing gender neutral uniforms for all.”

“Uniforms have a huge impact on students – we’re forced to wear them, and see them all day long,” she wrote. 

“Traditional uniforms are reinforcing traditional gender norms and expectations. When a kindergarten student can’t climb a tree, or a high schooler freezes in winter or isn’t comfortable playing sport at recess, simply because they ‘have to wear a dress to look nice,’ we clearly need to question our priorities.”

“While these issues may seem trivial for some, they fuel the gendered expectations we have all learnt – the belief that girls aren’t strong or shouldn’t be physical.”

Alex Lee, an ANU Student and 2018 Jasiri Trailblazer Fellow said that mandatory attires for people according to their genders emitted messages that were damaging for girls.

“When we tell girls to wear skirts rather than pants, we tell them: to sit rather than play; to watch rather than participate; to focus on how their bodies look rather than what they can do,” she said. “It makes sense for girls to choose what they wear- for the sake of their physical freedom, empowerment, and self-view.”

Greens Senator for NSW, Dr Mehreen Faruqi told Girls Uniform Agenda: “Girls should be able to play sports and be active without any barriers at school. Students of all genders should be able to choose what they wear to school, it’s really a no-brainer.” 

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