Why do we force girls to wear skirts to school?

Fifth-year Salerno Secondary School students wearing the newer trouser and older skirt school uniforms. From left: Síofra McCormack, Leah Ruane, Sarah Casserly, Cliodhna McDonald and Ria Banerjee. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
While a growing number of schools offer a choice of trousers, the majority of girls in secondary schools are stuck with the traditional skirt

The large huddle of schoolgirls are coming out of the National Museum at Collins Barracks after a visit earlier this year. It’s a dirty day; raining, cold, blustery. Walking behind them you can almost see the goosebumps on their legs from 20 paces as the wind whips at the edges of their maroon uniforms.

Sheltering at the Luas stop together, I wonder if the girls, who seem smart, fun and well-behaved – from Loreto Foxrock, their crests say – have the choice of trousers in their uniforms. They don’t, and they’re regularly freezing, they tell me, affronted at the injustice. They’re not even allowed thermal vests if they show above their blouses, they say.

Speaking to their principal later however, she says the issue of trousers hasn’t been raised.

This was well BC (Before Covid) but with schools back at last and facing into winter, the issue will emerge again.

It brings me back to an abiding memory of school: the misery of chill winds, bare legs exposed in mid-winter, the constraints on free movement to save my blushes – and the world from the sight of my knickers.

While a growing number of Irish schools allow girls to wear trousers, many secondary schools appear to stick with traditional notions of what is appropriate for young women, whereas some primary schools have adapted to demands for more comfort, sometimes after pupil agitation.

It’s exacerbated by Ireland’s preponderance of single-sex schools, unusual internationally, and by complex and sometimes disturbing perceptions of femininity.

What do girls think of obligatory skirts?

“We should definitely have the option,” of trousers says a pragmatic second-year at Muckross Park College, an all-girls school in Donnybrook in Dublin. “It’s horrible having to wear a skirt cycling to school on a freezing day. I can’t see what the big deal is. It’s the 21st century.” An idealistic Muckross first-year said: “I can’t stand all this outdated gender-role uniform stuff. Who else gets told they have to wear a skirt today?”

Aoibh Ní Chroimín says she regularly brought up the issue of obligatory skirts, including with the principal, at Coláiste Íosagáin, before she did the Leaving Cert in 2019.

 'In modern Ireland it’s not really fair. Wearing skirts is not the biggest deal, but on a windy day you’d be worried you’d flash'

More students dislike having to wear a skirt than like it, she says. Their kilts are too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and “skirts can blow up, and it’s embarrassing. It’s quite old fashioned to have to be careful in wind, so as not to show everyone your underwear.” Students wear GAA shorts under their kilts to get around this, she says.

We asked Coláiste Íosagáin whether students had raised the possibility of trousers in school, for reasons of practicality or comfort, and if so, was there any follow-up or plans currently to look at the issue, but the school declined to comment.

Another Coláiste Íosagáin student hates the uniform on aesthetic grounds: “It’s very badly cut. Why does it have to be so horrible?” She’d like the choice of trousers: “You can wear tights in the cold, but they’re scratchy and uncomfortable.”

A third-year at Rathdown School, south Co Dublin, says “You can’t cycle in the skirt, especially if it’s windy, so students cycle in tracksuits and change at school. It’s a pain bringing your skirt and changing in the loos.” The school points out there was no request to introduce trousers in a recent review of its code of behaviour.

Another student, who attends St Conleth’s College in Ballsbridge in Dublin, is glad she has a uniform, but says girls find skirts “annoying sometimes because they are impractical and freezing. In modern Ireland it’s not really fair. Wearing skirts is not the biggest deal, but on a windy day you’d be worried you’d flash.”

St Conleth’s is a mixed school, the boys wear grey trousers while the girls’ uniform is a tartan skirt.

At lunchtime, she says, boys play basketball; “girls decide not to because it’s uncomfortable”.

The ritualised ‘girling’ of young women

In Ritualized Girling: School Uniforms and the Compulsory Performance of Gender, Alison Happel writes that skirts and dresses “restrict movement in real ways; wearers must negotiate how they sit, how they play, how quickly they move. Skirt-wearing, consciously and unconsciously, imposes considerations of modesty and immodesty, in ways that trousers do not.”

In the Journal of Gender Studies paper, Happel writes about “girling”, which upholds gender norms and expectations, and through which “girls” are encouraged to embody certain features of femininity.

“A uniform which demands skirt-wearing solely in those defined as female persists the processes of ritualised girling, through which gendered performance is perpetuated and moulded and, finally, ‘naturalised’.”

Skirts differentiate female from male and are physical markers of sex and gender (and conflate the two) confirming “traditional” gender identities. “They have, therefore, implications for how girls are treated, viewed and, most importantly, for how they are able to move.”

 'Uniforms are not just clothes you wear to school; they shape people’s sense of identity, and equality within schools'

Happel argues that skirts implicitly sexualise girls in a way they can’t control, because the possibility of exposing body parts is a hazard. “Skirts allow for the exposure of underwear that covers buttocks and genitals; a possibility that has been commercialised and popularised” through popular culture, and even when they aren’t revealing, they still sexualise young women.

Why do so few girls cycle to school?

It stands to reason that wearing a skirt inhibits free movement. When it comes to cycling, the figures are stark. While Covid has seen an overall increase in people cycling, there’s an established gender disparity in cycling rates. The CSO Commuting in Ireland 2016 survey showed 0.4 per cent of girls aged 13-18 cycle to school, compared with 3.7 per cent boys. This means just one in 250 teenage girls cycle to school, and only a tenth of teenagers cycling are female.

Aiming to increase the numbers of girls cycling, the Green Schools’ campaign #andshecycles (operated by An Taisce in co-operation with local authorities and Government departments) is doing research in Irish schools. There’s no formal analysis yet, but for Dr Robert Egan, Green Schools’ secondary schools travel officer, uniforms come up in student focus groups as a factor in this cycling disparity.

Some focus group comments about skirts and cycling: “Because we have a skirt, it gets stuck in the chain”; “Say you want to cycle home, you have to go get changed, put on a pair of leggings, then go get your bike. So it’s just a hike”; “Because, you do get caught, the skirt gets caught in the chain”; “You don’t want your skirt getting blown up either”; “Lads get to wear pants, so it’s more convenient.”

Egan says even in some schools with a trousers option, the majority seem to wear skirts, and there’s a feeling trousers “look weird”. “They’re fitted for boys, like, there’s none fitted for girls.” Another: “If it was just one girl to do it, it’d be kind of like ‘What’s she wearing trousers for?’” or “Some girls don’t feel comfortable probably wearing trousers in school. I’m more comfortable wearing a skirt, to be honest.”

Wearing the Salerno uniform are fifth-year students, from left, Sarah Casserly, Ria Banerjee, Síofra McCormack, Leah Ruane and Cliodhna McDonald. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Wearing the Salerno (Co Galway) uniform are fifth-year students, from left, Sarah Casserly, Ria Banerjee, Síofra McCormack, Leah Ruane and Cliodhna McDonald. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Egan seems to have hit on the complexity of self-image, and the difficulties of breaking deep-rooted social norms, especially with such a focus on female appearance: a fear of being judged, self-consciousness about sweating, being flushed or wearing helmets also come up.

Why are school trousers ‘weird’ in 2020?

Teens are highly circumscribed by peer opinion, and talking to girls, many say even when they can wear trousers, they don’t, because “they look weird”.

It’s not helped by poorly cut trousers, or where there’s been no consultation, so there’s little buy-in from students.

Some Transition Year students from different schools, before lockdown, backed this up. A girl at a mixed school in north Co Dublin says they’re now allowed to wear trousers, but “girls wearing trousers are looked down on”, with people making comments that “they look stupid”. In other schools, including a fee-paying south Dublin girls’ school, initially trousers were seen as being for androgynous girls. Another observes “there’s homophobia behind some of the comments”.

Temple Carrig girls in Greystones, Co Wicklow can wear trousers: “It’s a new school, so they’re open, not holding onto tradition.” And in mixed Lucan Community College in Co Dublin, girls are given the choice of wearing a plaid kilt or grey uniform trousers. On the inclusion of trousers in the girls' uniform, principal Diane Birnie says: “Working closely with our student council who raised this issue with the Board of Management, we engaged in consultation with students, parents and staff.”

Aideen Nicholson’s two teenage daughters went to two Wicklow schools with a choice of skirt or trousers, which she was happy about, recalling obligatory skirts herself. But she too says trousers are unpopular: “nobody wears them”.

“It’s not seen as fashionable, or there’s peer pressure. So they put up with the cold.”

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor says it regularly receives calls from parents raising this. “Requiring girls to wear skirts or boys to wear trousers is outdated and reinforces gender stereotypes”, and can be impractical.

The student councils’ perspective

While some principals I spoke to said the trousers issue wasn’t raised, the students I asked all said it was unfair they didn’t have the choice. Ciara Fanning, who’s just finished up as president of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), says uniform issues are often raised at ISSU events – bones of contention include facial hair, dyed hair, nail-polish, piercings, “and in girls’ schools especially, skirts”.

She says “uniform policy in many schools is outdated” but some are making progress. “We need to seriously review our archaic uniform policies, and recognise uniforms are not just clothes you wear to school; they shape people’s sense of identity, and equality within schools.

Particularly for girls in single-sex schools, being forced to wear skirts is incredibly uncomfortable, when it’s freezing in winter, and restricting movement more than trousers.

Ciara Fanning, president of the Irish Second-Level Students Union: I felt that I would have a clearer head if I went to the open days by myself rather than explain the third-level system to my parents
Ciara Fanning, president of the Irish Second-Level Students Union: I felt that I would have a clearer head if I went to the open days by myself rather than explain the third-level system to my parents

“We need to respect students in our learning environment enough to allow them to wear uniforms that are comfortable. Girls having to wear skirts and boys having to wear trousers is an outdated concept we should have grown past.”

Fanning went to Loreto Secondary School in Clonmel – all girls, all skirts. “The uniform was a pinafore, and in winter I was freezing. Knee length with bottle green tights. Some students wore leggings or fluffy socks under the tights.”

She says the student council “wasn’t listened to” when they tried to bring in trousers. The teachers understood it, but for management “it’s on the long finger”.

Take-up on trousers was slow initially, but 'it took off big time', and now, five years down the line, more Salerno students choose trousers than skirts

“In Catholic schools it’s harder to change uniform policy,” she believes, because there are more people to consult. “For conservative schools ... it’s harder to make the case for trousers; there’s a sense of what a girl is supposed to look like when representing the school. I know schools aren’t democracies, but it’s unfair that people who don’t have to wear the uniform make decisions for others, without walking in their shoes.”

A textbook case in how to do trousers well

Wondering if my own alma mater still aligns with the seeming majority of uniformed schools in Ireland I see photos on its website feature girls in bottle green/navy tartan skirts – and trousers.

Principal Sr Gerarda Lawler, in Salerno Secondary School in Galway, says adopting a trouser option over five years ago was “a good move for us”.

“We felt the girls needed the option of trousers, to be fair to them. We were conscious of their comfort – at study, working hard, in the cold, travelling on buses. We owed it to them. Trousers make sense, why shouldn’t the girls wear them?”

The old uniform had straight, heavy skirts, an inflexible cut for a variety of shapes and sizes – “it didn’t suit everybody”. Initially they allowed tracksuits: the girls enjoyed the comfort, but “it was a walking nightmare”, she says, with fraying hems and a tatty appearance.

How Salerno approached the transition to trousers seems a textbook case in how to do it properly, with an outcome that works for everyone.

Spanish teacher Bridie Higgins surveyed widely – student council, students, staff, parents. The result is a tartan skirt with a pleat from the hip down, more wearable than the previous design, and trousers in the same fabric.

Plain bottle green trousers “would look like a boilersuit”, Sr Gerarda says. Tartan trousers (“I never thought it would run,” she admits) were the consensus, and are shaped properly, and look smart. The students were tickled when Teresa May wore a trousersuit in the same fabric, and again when Kate Middleton wore identical trousers.

They were careful to get the trousers right for all body types, with details like zipped pockets to keep money safe. “It was worth the work Bridie put into the process,” says Sr Gerarda. Take-up on trousers was slow initially, but “it took off big time”, and now, five years down the line, more Salerno students choose trousers than skirts – “they look great with the plain jumpers, and smart with school blazers”.

With “gender issues too, I’m very happy we have trousers”.

Principals and principles

While schools have lots of other things to deal with right now, life, and school, goes on. Salerno’s experience aligns with what Clive Byrne, National Association for Principals & Deputys, observes. Uniform policy is set locally by boards of management, “but an effective school will give parents and students a voice on uniform, so it doesn’t become a source of conflict; this is key to acceptance of a uniform code students can be proud of”.

Some schools’ uniform policies don’t permit girls to be as comfortable and free to move as the boys sitting beside them

Robert Dunne, principal at Loreto Abbey Dalkey, says sometimes they get comments, especially in cold weather, but “we haven’t had a huge groundswell from the student council to consider trousers”.

They surveyed on uniforms a couple of years ago and introduced fleeces and better fitting tracksuits. There wasn’t a question on trousers.

But “schools can’t stay static. I’m open to looking at it,” Dunne says. “Consultation is vital. It would be important that students and parents are involved, that they’d be good quality and comfortable.”

In the meantime, while those Loreto Foxrock girls at the Luas stop privately bemoaned their lack of choice, principal Bernadette Prendiville says the trousers issue hasn’t reared its head.

Discussing uniforms with sixth years, she says “they were all happy. If you wear anything long enough, you get fond of it. The girls like having a uniform.” She says the student council could make a case for trousers. “Students can wear a tracksuit or leggings during inclement weather and change when they get into school, and it’s not such a big deal. There are very few students who cycle.”

Fifth year Salerno Secondary School, Galway students wearing the newer trouser and older skirt school uniforms. From left: Ria Banerjee, Leah Ruane, Síofra McCormack, Cliodhna McDonald and Sarah Casserly. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Fifth year Salerno Secondary School, Galway students wearing the newer trouser and older skirt school uniforms. From left: Ria Banerjee, Leah Ruane, Síofra McCormack, Cliodhna McDonald and Sarah Casserly. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Over in Alexandra College in Milltown, only juniors have a uniform, with a choice of brown skirt or trousers. Principal Barbara Ennis estimates just 5 per cent wear trousers. “Some people don’t like the brown trousers,” she says, but “I don’t engage in massive dialogue on it. It’s their choice completely.”

She is not enthusiastic about uniform trousers. “Some trousers are not flattering on girls, especially at a vulnerable age, when they can emphasise the body. The problem is, uniforms and fashion will always be in conflict; uniforms are set in stone and don’t change. Most girls are very happy with the uniform, and know it’s for a limited number of years.”

In all this, perceptions differ. At the Accenture Women’s Day in Dublin’s Convention Centre before lockdown, among 1,600 guests are some school groups. I chat to some smart, articulate students from all-girls Coláiste Bríde in Clondalkin, in their navy and green check skirts, asking if they can wear trousers. No, they clamour, “but we’ve been trying to get them”.

A student survey last year showed about 90 per cent wanted the choice of trousers, they say, but they haven’t had any luck. Their principal joins us as we chat. She reckons check trousers wouldn’t work. The survey showed students wanted to wear PE tracksuits, she said, and “we’re very happy our girls can wear tracksuits”. Do many? No.

It takes time to change social norms embedded over many decades. Girls not wearing trousers can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if very few students wear trousers, it’s seen as “weird”, and no one wants to stand out. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, so it takes a while before wearing trousers in school is normalised.

Is it legal to make girls wear skirts?

So is it unequal treatment to require girls to wear skirts while boys can wear trousers to school? (And could not allowing boys to wear skirts also emerge as an issue?)

Boards of management look after school governance and the Department of Education doesn’t have power “to intervene or instruct a school” on uniform policy.

The Equal Status Act 2000 prohibits discrimination by schools on gender and other protected grounds, and a pupil, suing through a parent, can bring a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission.

Uniform policy specifying different clothing for girls and boys is not necessarily discriminatory on gender grounds; the legal test, according to a barrister specialising in labour and employment law, is whether the policy unreasonably bears more heavily on one gender than the other, regarding comfort, conventional standards of appearance and the right to determine one’s own appearance outside school.

While it is not legal to discriminate between genders where it adversely affects one of them, it is up to someone to bring a legal challenge to test it.

In the meantime, some schools’ uniform policies don’t permit girls to be as comfortable and free to move as the boys sitting beside them, or in the school next door.

*This article was edited on September 18th, 2020 to correct a factual error