Education

Discrimination and dress codes: why sexism starts in our schools

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Sometimes, I like to pretend to myself that we’ve moved on from a world where women and girls are judged for what they wear. I can’t pretend for long though, because something usually crops up that makes continuing with that pretence decidedly impossible. 

Recently, that something has been the news that Carlow Presentation College in Ireland has issued instructions to its female pupils asking them not to wear tight-fitting clothes to PE lessons as they could be ‘distracting’ to male staff. According to pupils, it seems that the school held a series of assemblies with female students from across the years, asking them not only to modify their PE clothing, but also telling the older girls that they should have ‘more respect’ for themselves. 

As yet, these allegations are unsubstantiated, and the school itself rejects that the remarks were ever made. However, plenty of pupils and parents are standing firm and a petition against Carlow school’s policy has been started, garnering thousands of signatures. 

Either way, the furore around Carlow school demonstrates that there is currently something of a battleground over the clothes that women and girls wear. This battleground exists in all facets of life, but worryingly, seems to be particularly prominent in schools. Every few years we hear stories of schools implementing puritanical uniform policies that only seem to apply to female pupils. Take Lord Grey School in Bletchley, where in 2016 up to 70 girls were sent home for their skirts being ‘too short’. This news might not have made headlines were it not for the justification the school gave for sending the girls home. It said that it had sent the girls home to ‘protect’ them and asked that girls’ skirts not be figure-hugging or too short. The school said that its buildings included a tower block with six flights of stairs and that the last thing it wanted was boys ‘peering up girls’ skirts while they are climbing the stairs’. 

So, in order to supposedly ‘protect’ girls from the reactions and behaviour of boys, the school had removed the girls themselves from the educational setting, while boys were allowed to continue uninterrupted. This is not to say that the boys had done anything that would warrant them being removed from education – quite the contrary. It is simply an observation that women’s clothing has not only been politicised, but it always (wrongly) seems to be up to women and girls themselves to make changes to their attire and their lives in order to accommodate for the anticipated behaviour of men. 

Lord Grey School isn’t the only one – there are countless schools which have sent (usually female) pupils home after deeming their uniform to not be suitable. And for all the schools that we hear of, there will be plenty of schools whose policies and justifications for them remain under the radar. 

My school in fact (though this was around six years ago now) had its own dress codes and justifications for them which could well have caused a public outcry. As a sixth-former, myself and several other girls were told that the reason that tops with thin straps were not allowed as part of the sixth form dress code was to protect us. We were informed of all this in a very kindly and friendly way, and were also told that wearing such clothing was unfair to male staff and pupils and would distract them. 

I remember being pretty irritated by these comments at the time, but strangely I noticed that my frustrations were not shared by the other girls. In fact, many seemed to simply accept that male staff and pupils would ‘naturally’ get distracted by the sight of a bare female shoulder. 

And this is the issue. Every time there is an outcry over schools policing the attire of their female students and insisting that this is to protect them, this indicates that female pupils have taken a stand and refused to accept the school’s comments as fair or valid. 

But when there is silence over such comments and restrictions, perhaps we might assume that the majority of female pupils in that establishment have accepted the narrative that they should modify the way they dress to ‘protect’ themselves from their male peers. This is not a good narrative for our young girls and women to accept. 

If the narrative that girls should change how they dress to avoid harassment from men and boys is promoted in our schools, then we can have little hope for a society where women can report assaults and attacks without experiencing stigma. Men and boys will learn the attitudes that surround them in their youth. If they find that girls are being told to change, and that they are not being told to change harassing behaviour, then as adults they will perpetrate the same behaviours that ultimately put women at high risk of attack. 

We often try to dismantle the sexist attitudes we find in our society; we express shock when we find that a teenager’s underwear is used as part of the defence in a rape trial to suggest that she was ‘open to meeting someone’ (and presumably suggest that the grounds for rape were not so high). But we only have to dismantle these attitudes because they are reinforced so heavily to so many young people throughout their school lives. If sexism and victim blaming are cultivated in our schools, our wider society will always experience problems relating to them. 

We cannot ask for change to come only in the world of politics or law; schools must be at the forefront of encouraging positive gender relations. But if they implement sexist uniform policies, they will only entrench biases and discrimination further in society. 

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