International Women’s Day 2023

8th March 2023 / Posted by Impressions

It’s International Women’s Day and the theme this year is embracing equity. I’ve been campaigning for equity in Schoolwear for the past 18 months.

I firmly believe that there’s been a real lack of it. In general, a whole uniform for a girl will cost more than that for her male counterpart.  Girls are often ‘expected’ to wear skirts which, for many, are relatively more expensive, uncomfortable and impractical.  If a girl wants to wear trousers there is a massive inequality in the number of styles available compared to the number of styles available for boys

Despite only being a relatively small supplier in the north of England, I have on a regular basis challenged our suppliers to create a more inclusive range of Schoolwear.

Historically, school uniform has had a masculine look, certainly from the top up (the blazer, shirt and tie based on traditional formal wear for men). This style of uniform, introduced decades ago is still the most common today. When I was as school, nurses and policewomen wore skirts, too, but like most other sectors, they have moved on. So why haven’t we?  I believe there are several reasons. 

The first is that there isn’t a traditional customer/supplier relationship within the Schoolwear industry.  We have manufacturers, retailers and customers.  Sitting in amongst this relationship are schools – who neither produce, design, or buy – so where does the demand come from?  Secondly the Schoolwear industry was, until recently, dominated by men – generally upwards of middle aged and, in the main, suit-wearing individuals (I could say more but I’ll keep it at that level for the purpose of this article!!)  

There is an (often unconscious) bias in Schoolwear that suggests girls should wear skirts.  This is perpetuated in the language of uniform descriptions produced by schools, photographs in brochures, window displays and general images in the media. If, as a girl you decide to wear trousers you are automatically putting yourself into a smaller minority and subconsciously, that’s going to have an effect on our girls.

The other thing that concerns me is the insistence on putting girls in a pleated skirt or a short straight skirt, which can be limiting and impractical on a number of levels.  A study in Ireland found that secondary school boys are 18 times more likely to cycle to school than girls.* Ever tried to cycle in a pleated or a short fitted skirt? It is widely accepted that exercise habits are formed in our early years, so are we of setting girls up to be to be less fit because of the type of uniform that we’re putting them in.

But more importantly, the choice in uniform I think, doesn’t help girls. So for instance, if a boy comes in and wants a pair of trousers, I can offer him probably 10/12 different styles of trouser from a slim skinny and ultra skinny, a sturdy fit a regular fit, you name it, I can get that boy in a pair of trousers no matter what your shape and size that fits him. Can I do that with a girl? No, not a chance because each supplier may only do one or two types of girls trouser. And even with an adjustable waist and various leg lengths. Sometimes that simply isn’t enough.

Our girls often say to us, why don’t girls trousers have pockets? And I’ve asked that question to our suppliers; why not? After all every boys trouser has pockets? Do girls not want to put the same things as boys in their pockets i.e. their hands? For anyone, especially when carrying a large bag around your shoulder, being able to put your hand in your pocket is fantastic.

Cost inequality is an issue too.  I’ve got a big supplier with a great range of PE Kits, but the girls top is more expensive than the boys. At primary school if a girl wears a cardigan, it’s generally more expensive than a sweatshirt and whilst I appreciate it cost more to make a cardigan than a sweatshirt  – perhaps we have to look deeper and ask – what should they be wearing that is

Girls are often paying a lot more for that their uniform because a school will introduce something like a tartan skirt for a girl, yet a boy can wear a plain black trouser that effectively thy can get from anywhere.

‘Dressing Girls to Fail’ a report published in 2021 by Let Clothes be Clothes talks about many of these in more detail and goes further – by suggesting the number of rules imposed in girls clothes is also unequal and suggests we are creating opportunities for punitive measures on girls that shouldn’t exist.

There are some interesting developments coming through – like Zip jackets for primary kids that work for both boys and girls, better ranges of trousers for girls (including the introduction of pockets) – unisex shirts, more inclusive labelling.  However I think we need to look harder and be braver. I think it’s time I think we need to work with our schools and our young people to start designing uniform that really does once and for all promote equity in Schoolwear.

** A study by R Higgins and A Ahern published by MDPI in 2021 suggested thar at Primary age 2.7 times more noys than girls are likely to travel to school by bike and at secondary school this increases to 18 times more likely.  Issues such as uniform, bags and weather featured highly in the ability or wish to cycle.

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