When it comes to improving gender equality, Australia’s school system is scraping by with barely passing grades.
For too long, we have let ourselves off the hook by viewing the harmful gender norms that shape our world as ‘unchangeable’ and ‘just a fact of life’.
It’s just a fact of life that girls wear dresses and boys wear pants. It’s just a fact of life that boys like maths and science, while girls like English and art.
In fact, our society created and perpetuate these norms. We can change them.
Sadly, making active changes to subvert gender norms in our schools is controversial and can trigger backlash.
Last year, we saw high profile conservative commentators, such as columnist Miranda Devine and Sky News host Ross Cameron, attack Santa Sabina Catholic girl’s school in Sydney after it launched a new uniform offering girls the option to wear pants or shorts. The move was branded as “political correctness gone mad” and a move to “brainwash” the girls.
Still, fear of controversy is no reason to give up.
We need to keep striving for gender equality – to improve the future for our girls and women, as well as our boys and men.
We see the damage from dangerous gender norms in the news every night: the high rates of male suicide, the violence against women, and discrimination against non-binary individuals struggling for recognition.
We’re shoved into these roles at birth and spend the rest of our lives facing the consequences.
School offers us a rare opportunity to combat this. Students are there for 40 weeks a year – it plays a major role in shaping the world views and attitudes we form, reinforcing the gender norms which cause so many of the problems we see in society.
I believe we can combat these 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.
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 to some, they fuel the gendered expectations we have all learnt – the belief that girls aren’t strong or shouldn’t be physical.
Forcing women to wear dresses is archaic. Especially as we know that gender is not binary. Trans and non-binary students are impacted most by these outdated uniform policies but their struggles and voices are rarely included in public discussions. Flexible uniform choices can have a real and transformational impact on their mental health and sense of self.
We are seeing some progress. Queensland is the latest state to make it mandatory to allow girls to wear pants in all state schools. New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia have done the same.
But it’s far from enough. To begin with this only accounts for students in state schools. Moreover, the option to wear whatever uniform you want should be open to all students – boys, Trans and non-binary students all need, and should have this freedom as well. If we allow girls to wear pants, why do we ban boys from wearing skirts?
In allowing gender neutral uniforms, schools can rewrite harmful gender norms and stereotypes. Let’s make this ‘back to school’ season different. We have the ability to actively make the changes we know we need – for girls, for boys, for all of us. Why don’t we?