Members of the British parliament learned about a very unpleasant reality many female students while discussing the topic of sexual violence in schools this week: Apparently, many students have resorted to wearing shorts under their skirts for fear of harassment from their male peers. The oft-discussed issue of uniforms came up in meeting held by the U.K.'s Women and Equalities Committee, which was created in 2013 to examine gender equality issues. In April, the committee started looking into the safety of young girls in schools, the Telegraph reported. A group of six experts, including policymakers, organization leaders, and educators, were summoned in a roundtable format to address members of parliament and discuss their findings on Tuesday. Apparently, the committee attributes online pornography, a culture of victim-blaming, and a systemic misogyny prevalent in society (that would be difficult to address unless wider cultural attitudes are tackled) as reasons why young girls might feel threatened or vulnerable in a skirt at school.
The investigation is certainly timely, given data from recent years regarding sexual harassment in the U.K. — and recent conversation (and controversy) surrounding uniform policing across the globe. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 5,500 sexual offenses reported in British schools, according to a 2015 report from the BBC. A Girlguiding survey, also released last year, revealed that 75% of young women have felt anxiety over the possibilities of facing sexual harassment in their everyday lives, with a shocking 90% of 13 to 21 year olds agreeing that schools should do more to address sexual harassment in classrooms. "We've heard from girls who tell us you don't leave school as a girl without being called a slut, that to wear shorts under your skirt to prevent boys revealing your underwear in the playground is just normal behavior," Sophie Bennett, co-director of U.K. Feminista, an organization that campaigns for gender equality, told the committee. "There is that sense of a normalized culture of sexual harassment in schools where girls don't feel able to report it and instead change their own behavior, such as wearing shorts under their skirts." This echoes the response the Women and Equalities Committee received in April, when it spoke with 300 "young people" in the U.K., prior to launching its official investigation, in order to gauge how people in that demographic felt about the issue of sexual assault in schools, the Huffington Post reports. Back then, those surveyed told the committee that officials and teachers were not only dismissing incidents of harassment that were brought to their attention, but they were also downplaying the pressures of bullying that students can face. In turn, survivors feared being reprimanded for coming forward, according to the report. The committee agreed that sexual harassment is indeed an issue students face every day in school and that those in positions of power (i.e., principals or teachers) don't necessarily know how to recognize and address it. Susie McDonald, chief executive officer of Tender, a U.K. charity devoted to anti-abuse, explained to the Committee that despite a "seismic shift" towards teachers feeling emboldened enough to report harassment, there still exists a "fear that if they're reporting sexual violence, what it will do to their reputation and how it will impact Ofsted checks." (The latter is an organization that helps regulate the quality and care of students in schools.) A representative for Ofsted told the BBC that it takes into account how a school's leadership address concerns of harassment as part of its inspections.
McDonald added that after talking to a group of female students in London about how to combat harassment, she felt that allowing girls to wear pants is a nice idea, but it won't actually put any emphasis on changing boys' attitudes towards their classmates. The issue of whether skirts are "distracting" to male peers has been a hot topic as of late. When we talk about uniforms, this is often used as an excuse by school administrators to justify female students being sent home for dress code violations — in the U.K., in New Zealand, and beyond. Other points raised during the committee meeting included the lack of proper sexual education that, according to Jo Sharpen from Against Violence and Abuse, leads some students to learn about sexual conduct through porn and subsequently having "unrealistic and harmful attitudes about gender, sex, and consent" — a point seconded by Marai Larasi of Black feminist organization Imkaan. However, Dr. Fiona Vera-gray, a research fellow at Durham University, argued that isolated case studies were of little use and that the problem runs far deeper. "To fix what's going on in schools, we also need to think more broadly about changing attitudes in the general population," she said. It might take decades for a social sea change in attitudes towards young women's bodies. In the meantime, perhaps gender-neutral uniforms might be the best solution.