Recently, I was honored to be included in the IE Faces of Change list, a university campaign that recognizes IE community Members who, like myself, have embraced, on a daily basis, some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda.
Out of all the goals, I am most passionate Goal 5, gender equality, because it closely interconnects with the remaining 16, therefore allowing me to impact and advocate for the entire SDG Agenda.
I personally understand and commit to gender equality as the equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes in both the private and public sphere. This is crucial to advance communities, regions, nations and the entire planet.
However, regardless of how obvious the above statements may seem to many, the truth is that to embrace and be committed to a goal like gender equality, we must look around us with a gender-conscious lens and change what “does not fit” within the parameters of gender equality, or at least strive to do so.
Thus, three years ago, when observing the physical dynamics of the students on my daughter’s school playground during break, the following questions came to my mind: are school uniforms made to facilitate girls’ movement or hinder it? And what are the implications of having restricted women’s influence within decision-making processes since childhood, as well as their participation in private and public spheres later in life?
It will definitely take us more than a blog post to develop the interconnections mentioned above, and since the purpose of this post is just to put ideas into action, I will focus on the immediate answers that came to my mind after my own internal questioning, and how they triggered my will to act: “Learning and cognitive development is not all in our heads: movement, emotions and self-expression through our bodies is crucial to learning”. These were my thoughts, surely inspired by my latest readings on neuroscience and education at the time.
Due to my immediate reflections, I felt sufficiently empowered to call the principal of the school my daughter was attending and set up a meeting about the introduction of girls’ trousers as part of the uniform for female students of the primary and secondary school. I obviously wanted my daughter to have the same opportunities for physical expression, and by extension, the same opportunities for learning as her male counterparts. And obviously, this was not the case at that time because uniform skirts restricted her movements when attempting somersaults and skipping on the school playground, for example.
As a consequence of the meeting and after a few minutes’ discussion, I agreed to carry out some market research together with the school secretary on all the uniform suppliers and sales channels available at that time. We soon realized that the offer of uniform women’s trousers was scarce at many suppliers and inexistent at the majority. A ‘lack of demand’ was suppliers’ main argument for not offering this kind of product.
Disheartened by these results but confident that another approach could allow me to accomplish Goal 5, I suggested to the principal of the school to include jeans as part of the school uniform. The idea was that jeans would become another item of clothing that both male and female students could choose as part of their uniform, and that we could also ensure that the women’s trousers that the jeans industry definitely produces, were considered and introduced. The proposal was accepted and incorporated by the school within a couple of months.
Nowadays at my daughter’s school, male and female students (and their parents, of course) have more uniform options to choose from that mainly allow them to move and learn equally and with equal freedom in any kind of physical pursuit. This way, they can still observe and respect the uniform guidelines of the school while also, more importantly, being able to approach any movement or physical expression in the same way, without any external clothing barrier. By doing so, according to my research on cognition and education, boys and girls are equally disposed to learning.
In spite of the positive and immediate response of the school, I thought that it had taken a while for the institution to realize that the uniform was an external barrier for gender equality. And so, I decided to research a little bit on what elite schools had to say in this regard.
As a result, I ended up by diving into the archives of the library catalogue of Radcliffe College – a women’s liberal arts college at Harvard College, now Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where bloomers were introduced as part of the official uniform for Physical Education lessons in the late 19c. Bloomers not only represented a departure from the accepted dress for women, but also a different understanding of the acquisition of knowledge, and represented a different understanding of the women’s rights movement in the USA in the years to come.
Without doubt, it was a revolutionary idea that unfortunately only expanded slowly across other elite education institutions for women at the time. However, it reinforced my commitment to the UN’s goal for gender equality for the years to come.