Landmark equality ruling on dress to affect schools

 

Schoolgirls and women workers may no longer be compelled to wear skirts following a landmark ruling by an Equality Officer that compulsory women's uniforms are discriminatory.

Rulings by an Equality Officer have a legal standing and can only be appealed to the High Court. Secondary school principals responded to the decision last night by acknowledging that the era of compulsory skirts for girl students might be at an end. Ms Mary McGlynn, the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, agreed the ruling was significant but said many school uniforms were distinctive and "could not be changed over night".

"This will have major repercussions and obviously principals will have to discuss it," said Mr Michael McCann, an executive committee member of the association. "I can't say I'm surprised, though. The pressure for change has been growing, especially since the Equal Status Act was introduced," he said.

The ruling arose in the case of a former trainee receptionist who was awarded £3,000 after an equality officer found she had been discriminated against by CERT, who insisted she wear its standard female uniform.

Ms Mary Keane, from Dublin, claimed the uniform she was obliged to wear was demeaning and had "overtones of subservience". She claimed it was a constant source of teasing from male trainees, with the apron "singled out as a topic of amusement".

Ms Keane, who is in her 50s, also argued the uniform was inappropriate to her age.

At the time, all CERT female trainee receptionists had to wear a knee-length buttoned black dress with a white collar, white apron and short sleeves. The male trainees wore trousers, long-sleeved white shirt, bow tie and waistcoat. Trainee chefs, however, wore trousers as part of a unisex uniform.

Since the case was lodged last year, CERT has changed the trainee receptionist uniform.

According to the Equality Authority, which took the case for Ms Keane, the decision could have far-reaching consequences for the wearing of uniforms not only in the workplace but in schools. A spokesman said the Equal Status Act, in force since October, specifically prohibits discrimination in schools.

"If girls wish to wear trousers instead of a skirt, they should be allowed to do so. It is our view that a school would be discriminating against them if it refused," the spokesman said. The decision had particular implications for organisations that required female staff to wear uniforms, such as the banks and Aer Lingus, he added.

The spokesman conceded that under the equality legislation, schoolboys and male employees who wished to wear skirts would be entitled to do so. "We're not anticipating much demand on that one," he said.

The effect of the ruling on single-sex schools was unclear. However, the Equality Authority believes a girl compelled to wear a skirt in a single-sex school could take a case if practice differed in a co-ed school nearby.

In Ms Keane's case, CERT argued that the purpose of the uniform was to maintain hygiene standards. However, the equality officer rejected this argument, and concluded that the uniform policy was based on a conventional view that women should wear skirts. The officer awarded £3,000 for lost employment opportunities, distress caused by the discrimination and the stress caused by pursuing the claim.