Recently, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team made headlines across the world for taking a stand against their uniform, which was clearly not-fit-for-purpose, uncomfortable and sexist.
Many were outraged when the International Handball Federation fined the team for wearing shorts rather than the required bikini bottoms “no more than 10 centimetres at the sides”.
Men, on the other hand, can wear shorts as long as 10 centimetres above the knees as long as they are “not too baggy”.
Women have raised concerns about their compulsory uniforms, not just in handball or other sport, for years; however, often they are shut down and told nothing can be done, when something definitely could be done.
In Australia, many non-government schools require students to wear ‘traditional’ school uniforms; trousers or shorts, button-up shirts, tunics and skirts, socks or stockings and leather shoes – and have policies limiting the wearing of sports uniforms to the nominated sports/activity days only.
Girls’ Uniform Agenda
The Girls’ Uniform Agenda (GUA) has been challenging compulsory uniforms norms, particularly in non-government schools.
Established in 2017 by co-founders Dr Amanda Mergler and Simone Cariss, the organisation’s goal is for all students in all schools around Australia to have the choice of pants and shorts as part of their daily uniform options.
Our union has been a major supporter of the GUA’s campaign, encouraging members to wear pants to school during the week of International Women’s Day, among other collective activities, to celebrate the freedom to wear pants to work that some students do not have.
GUA has successfully helped many people lobby their schools or education departments for more appropriate uniform options for students with their collective approach and accessible resources.
The IEU-QNT School Chapter at the Essington School is one such group who used their union collective with the resources created by GUA to get their school to change girls’ uniforms.
Students now have the option to wear better fitting skorts that allow them to play more freely. They were also able to select uniform fabrics better suited to the tropical climate.
Benefits of uniform equity
While removing a barrier to sport and physical activity is a major driver for the GUA campaign, they also argue that girls should have the option of pants or shorts because:
•Letting students choose the most comfortable option of clothing for themselves allows them to focus on their learning or playing, instead of worrying about the length of their skirts, whether anyone can see their underwear or being cold in winter.
•Rigid gender stereotypes are damaging to everyone. It is unfair to require girls to wear skirts and dresses so they ‘look’ a certain way, when boys have less restrictive options that allow for more freedom.
•The majority of women at work and in society (perhaps with the exception of professional athletes) have options to wear what is appropriate for their job and comfortable for them personally. Teachers, nurses, police officers and office workers all have uniform or dress code options; they are not forced to wear dresses or skirts (Girls’ Uniform Agenda, 2019).
Next steps to achieve equity
A University of Newcastle research team have been looking at the benefits of students wearing their sport uniform every day.
Sports uniforms are cheaper, more comfortable and could lead to an increase in physical activity according to the team (Mclaughlin, Wolfenden, McCarthy and Nathan, 2021).
Research findings also indicate teachers, students and parents prefer sports uniforms, and would support a change to a daily sports uniform (McCarthy et al., 2020).
One survey conducted by the researchers found that of the participants (principals, teachers and parents of children in grades two to three from 62 primary schools) 63 percent of teachers and 78 percent of parents supported a change to daily sports uniform, whereas only 38 percent of principals did (McCarthy et al., 2020).
They found the biggest barrier to the change was the perception a sports uniform is not appropriate for formal occasions, the potential financial impact on families that comes with uniform policy changes as well as the cost to the school’s image, status and tradition (McCarthy et al., 2020).
Talking to the Sydney Morning Herald this year, lead researcher and PhD candidate Nicole McCarthy said, “the biggest barrier is the image and its appropriateness for formal occasions. It’s important to the schools. We know that, and that’s okay. There’s a sense of identity. But maybe it’s more about challenging the uniform providers to make attractive, smart sportswear that would still be acceptable.” (Baker, 2021)
Students say ‘yes’
Most importantly, the researchers have tested both primary and secondary students’ attitudes to changing traditional uniforms to sports uniforms. Overall, 63 percent of primary students reported that they would prefer to wear their sports uniform every day (McCarthy et al., 2018).
Sixty-two percent of the students believed they would be more active during the school day if they were wearing their sports uniform (McCarthy et al., 2018).
Of the secondary students surveyed, 71.9 percent said they would prefer to wear their sports uniform every day and 65 percent believe they would be more active if allowed to do so (McCarthy et al., 2019).
Given these findings, as well the fact that activity levels for young people are low across the board, sports uniforms may prove a valuable tool in increasing physical activity and sports participation for students.
This is exactly the next step the team are taking in their research: a large study looking at whether primary school students are more active if they wear sports uniforms every day.
Twenty-four NSW schools have signed up for the study, with 12 asking their students to wear sports uniforms every day, while the rest will wear the traditional uniform (Baker, 2021).
The researchers will record the students’ fitness over a year and their physical activity over a week.
Continuing to advocate for change
While many positive changes have occurred to provide greater school uniform equity, widespread policy and cultural change to school uniforms is not going to happen overnight.
There are some valid reasons the traditional uniform are in place, such as forming a school identity, but those should not mean we never revisit uniform policy.
We need to be open to change, especially when simple changes could make big differences to students, for example changing uniform material to better suit hotter or colder climates.
Our union is a great way for members to become involved in uniform equity.
Women’s or equity committees in our union’s various branches are a key avenue to continuing our campaign for change in this area.
IEU members can also raise the issue of uniform equity for discussion in their school chapters.
Whether it be removing barriers to physical activity and learning or allowing students to be more comfortable in what they are required to wear every day – together we can achieve equity for our students and our school communities.