The Head may have the final say, but gender stereotyping in schools starts at the neck!

OK, I know she’s not really a Bridlington schoolgirl – but you get the point

We have heard many times over the last few years, how important it is to remove the spectre of gender stereotyping from our schools. Usually this is in the context of encouraging girls to study subjects which have traditionally been of more interest to boys. Today, many more girls than before choose these subjects, and I doubt whether there is a single Key Stage 4 girl in the country today who feels she does not have just as must right as a boy to study Physics, Chemistry or Maths. Strangely, the fact that many more girls than boys choose to study A-level English and Modern Foreign Languages gets nowhere near the same media attention – but that is another story. Despite the emphasis on this “subject stereotyping”, it is neither the only nor the most widespread example of gender stereotyping in schools today.

As a case in point, we have an article in today’s Daily Telegraph and other newspapers, in which the Head Teacher at Bridlington School is vilified by parents for daring to ban girls from wearing skirts to school. This was the result of a male teacher telling a girl off for wearing her skirt too short and being told by the girl “You shouldn’t be looking at my legs”. The fact that the girl had the arrogance to say this, and that the teacher felt sufficiently threatened by the possibility of being the subject of unfounded allegations to report the matter to the Head, speaks volumes for both the way men are viewed in schools, and the way many schoolgirls think that rules concerning dress don’t apply to them. Thankfully the Head backed the teacher to the hilt and, after due process, changed the uniform rules. There have been other cases in the past where head  teachers have done this, for similar reasons, and been rewarded by shouts of outrage from parents.

There are two important issues involved here. The first is the right of male staff to be able to work free from embarrassment and spurious allegations. If boys in the school were behaving or dressing in a way that embarrassed women teachers, the Head, teachers, governors and parents would all come down on them like a ton of bricks. However, because this case challenges the female entitlement to push the rules and dress as they please, the male teacher’s discomfort takes second place in the eyes of many. It is shameful that a teacher should be made to feel embarrassed or threatened merely for doing his job and pointing out a uniform infringement.

The other issue is the disparity in treatment of boys and girls (and women and men, for that matter) when it comes to comfort and freedom of choice in what they wear. In similar cases to this one, several arguments have been used against the head teachers. Here are three of them. The first is that girls have a “right” to wear skirts; the second, used in the recent Bridlington argument, is that trousers are expensive; the third, used in a previous case, was that it was just so unfair to make girls wear uncomfortable trousers during the summer!

Let’s take these one by one:

1. Schoolgirls have a right to wear skirts

This comes down to the whole issue of school uniform. Personally, I am in favour of school uniform as it removes so much stress and hassle from the lives of students and parents alike. The whole rat race of designer clothes, fashion parades and keeping up with the Joneses is eradicated in one fell swoop. So, if we accept school uniform, how are boys and girls treated when it comes to freedom choice and comfort?

The obvious answer, of course, is that boys are almost universally short-changed. With the possible exception of some of the more extreme faith schools, I challenge readers to give me a verifiable example of a school with stricter dress requirements for girls than for boys. I even extend this dress-code challenge to male and female members of staff. Some schools, for instance, make both boys and girls wear ties: many more, though make only boys wear them. This is a major source of discomfort during the summer months. One school, Maiden Erlegh, near Reading, and I am sure others, takes this stereotyping a step further and allows the girls (weaker sex, little dears, bless…) to wear a more comfortable summer uniform, but makes the boys (tough little soldiers, stiff upper lip, company-directors-to-be) struggle with their ties until they start to fall off their chairs with heat stroke. This, of course, can only create ill-feeling among the boys, and does nothing at all to make them feel that the sexes are, or even should be, treated equally. In addition, and this is the nub of the case today, nearly all schools give girls the option of wearing skirts without giving boys the equivalent right to wear smart shorts. These advantages given to the girls are neither a “right” nor an “entitlement”, and if they are abused, they should be withdrawn.

With apologies to those mothers who claim that their daughters wear skirts of a reasonable length, I am afraid you have forgotten your own school days! Many girls will arrive at school in skirts the same length as when they left home, but many others do the old trick of rolling up the waistband on the way to school. Come on, Mum, don’t pretend you never did that.

2. Trousers are expensive

I don’t really know where to start on this one without stating the downright obvious. Parents of boys are obliged to buy trousers for their sons: what a strange sense of equality we have if we think girls should be able to wear a different school uniform to boys merely because it is cheaper.

3. It is so unfair to make girls wear uncomfortable, hot trousers during the summer (yes- a mother really did say this)

Touched on in item 1 above, this claim also beggars belief. Boys are always obliged to wear trousers all year round, regardless of the heat. Why do parents not complain to headteachers about their sons’ discomfort during the summer months? Why do we still think it acceptable to expect boys to tolerate a higher degree of discomfort and formality than girls? If you are going to campaign for skirts on these grounds, at least have the sense of fairness to campaign for the boys to be allowed to wear shorts.

It is not only the boys who suffer from this type of gender-stereotyping, male staff are often the victims too. The Times Education Supplement forums sometimes have threads about staff dress codes, and it is still often the case that the men are expected to wear a jacket and tie, while women, working under the same conditions, can wear a light summer skirt and a t-shirt. The women in the threads complain because they are not allowed to wear denim and flip-flops: all the men want is to be allowed to enjoy the comfort of an open-necked shirt. Incredibly in these days of equality, it seems it is still acceptable for a Head Teacher to tell men how to dress, but the moment they try to limit the woman’s right to choose, they are accused of being sexist. Thankfully it is slowly changing. It is often said that “if the pupils have to wear ties, the teachers should too”. This is a specious argument if ever there was one: there are two girls schools near where I live where the girls wear ties – the female members of staff do not!

To end on a positive note, full marks to the Haydon School in Pinner, which has a uniform policy that could be a model for other schools in  blowing away gender stereotyping and treating all pupils equally. Do the boys there wear skirts? I doubt it, but that is their choice. The only thing missing is the option of smart shorts in the summer, for both girls and boys.

So, a message to Head Teachers everywhere: if you want to remove gender-stereotyping from your school, look first at your uniform, starting at the neck and working upwards and downwards to make sure you are treating all pupils equally. Unequal requirements with respect to ties, hair length and any other items of uniform foster resentment and do nothing to instill in pupils a sense of fairness and equality. Subject your staff dress code to the same scrutiny. Don’t hide behind false arguments of “maintaining standards”. If those standards are discriminatory and unfair they should, indeed, be challenged. To do otherwise is to avoid the responsibility of all schools to do away with gender stereotyping.

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