Last year, Western Australia’s schools changed the dress code for public school girls, allowing them to wear shorts and pants, rather than limiting them to only dresses, skirts or “skorts”.
Then in March this year, schoolgirls across Queensland were told by the state’s education department that they would be allowed to wear shorts instead of skirts.
While these historic decisions were broadly welcomed, some private school principals who have taken the step of overhauling their school uniform policies have been the subject of criticism.
Earlier this year, the principal of a private girls’ school in Sydney, who gave students the option of wearing shorts and long pants, was criticised by some media for “promoting gender fluidity”.
However, according to Victoria Rawlings, a lecturer in education, pedagogy and sexuality at the University of Sydney, and Debra Hayes, professor of education and equity at the university, say such criticism is ill-informed and potentially harmful to gender diverse people.
They say school leaders, such as the principal should be “supported, not pilloried”.
“Underpinning criticisms of changes in the school’s uniform policy is the assumption clothing is an essential element of gender identity,” Rawlings and Hayes recently wrote in The Conversation.
“For people who hold this view, the uniform worn by girls should be distinctly different from that worn by boys in order to prevent individual and collective notions of gender from being undermined, lest children lose their sense of gender all together.”
‘Australian school environments are not supportive’
Rawlings and Hayes said that a review of Australian and international literature on bullying shows many school environments are “unsupportive, if not prejudicial”, towards students from minority groups in Australia.
“This is particularly the case for those students who identify or are perceived as being from sexuality or gender minorities. They often experience higher rates of violence, and subsequent emotional, social and physical health inequalities,” Rawlings and Hayes said.
A recent study of over 700 sexuality and gender diverse young people found 94% of participants heard homophobic language at school.
Some 54% of this happened daily. Almost half of the participants had witnessed school-based physical harassment of classmates that were perceived to be sexuality or gender diverse.
So what can society do to make schools supportive?
Rawlings and Hayes said society needs leaders who will support and defend the right of young people to express their gender as they wish – whether gender diverse or not.
“The [Sydney private school] principal at the centre of this recent ‘crisis’ demonstrated this kind of leadership,” they said.
“The success of the marriage equality survey reminds us we can be a tolerant, accepting, and safe place for all Australians. But it takes constant work.”
Rawlings and Hayes said that responsible adults – especially community leaders such as principals and politicians – must have the courage to challenge negative attitudes toward gender diversity and support the needs of trans and gender diverse people.
“Relaxing the rules on school uniforms is a small but positive step in this direction,” they said.