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Skirting Equality

Why are Women Still Required to Wear Skirts in the Police?


By Durga Sharma


Photo Courtesy of Pexels


A 2022 Freedom of Information statement from the Metropolitan Police states that although trousers are more practical, women may still be “ordered” to wear skirts for formal ceremonies. The Police are supposed to be the epitome of practicality, and a lot of their decisions around the uniforms reflect this: for example, although ties are technically required, local management may alter this policy due to extreme heat or specific recommendations from occupational health (likely to do with safety). This makes sense, but the requirement for skirts in public-facing roles? Less so.

 

What is the background of women in policing? According to the Friends of the Metropolitan Police Heritage Charity, the initial concept was introduced in 1883 in the form of the ‘female visitor’, who was appointed to visit female prisoners or women under supervision. The first Voluntary Women Patrols came about in 1914, however they were only admitted to the Police Federation in 1948 under the title WPC - Woman Police Officer. According to the Met Police’s website, this distinction was dropped in 1990. Since then women have been rising through the ranks, with the first female Commissioner appointed in 2017, though Dame Cressida resigned in 2022 following the murder of Sarah Everard.

 

Admittedly, the uniform policy has improved as the apparent equality within the force has continued to grow: until the mid-70s, skirts were a requirement unless it was winter, or the officer in question was on a night shift. Thankfully, this rule has been relaxed significantly, however it’s difficult to find an explanation for the continuing requirement of skirts at formal events. Their continuation seems a shame, particularly considering the essential  alterations that have already been made over the years.


To take Greater Manchester Police as an example (the third-largest force in the UK in 2023), identical equipment and protection only came about in the 1990s with the introduction of utility belts. Until this, women were forced to carry their equipment in a policing handbag due to lack of pockets; and yes, this was actually a thing. So are skirts simply a retained tradition, or is there actually some basis to it? I would suggest that it’s the first one: compared to other professions like medicine, there is next to no information out there as to why the policy exists.

 

In mention of medicine: who has heard of the Bare Below Elbows (BBE) policy? To put it simply, medical professionals are not allowed to wear anything below their elbows in an effort to reduce contamination and improve disease control. Though doubts as to BBE’s efficacy have been raised as early as 2010 in the Journal of Hospital Infection, there does at least appear to be some legitimate grounds to its creation, rather than simply relying upon tradition.


But this goes beyond the Met: the RAF, Army and Navy all require skirts as a part of full dress. Again, this is no longer a requirement on the job, just for ceremonial or official purposes. In the Navy, even the denier of tights is prescribed at 15 or less under Section 3821 of the Dress Policy (effective since February 2019). I can look at a pair of 15 denier tights and they will ladder themselves: where is the sense in this?

 

One thing I wonder is whether this is a sign of institutional biases that have yet to be let go. Within the Army for example, women were only allowed to be in front-line infantry and armoured corp roles after the ban instituted in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was finally lifted in 2014. Under the now revoked Section 85(4)(a), women could be legally excluded from combat based on their sex. To me this was bizarre considering the 1975 Act was supposed to put a stop to such practices.


Are the skirts a reminder of times gone by where discrimination was more commonplace?

 

Institutional biases, failures to tackle widespread problems, issues of corruption: it’s time to discuss the Baroness Casey Review. This was a report ordered in 2021 after the murder of Sarah Everard, and one of the many catalysts leading to the Commissioner’s resignation in 2022. The findings were shocking: the Met were described at one stage as an “old boys club” by a serving firearms officer. Not to surmise, but could this be part of the reason why the tradition hasn’t been dropped?

This is an institution that appears to be stuck in the past, with ingrained attitudes that have allowed inequalities to remain, from basic things such as an outdated uniform policy, to far more serious issues of mistreatment and misogyny.

Though the report acknowledges that things have improved (such as the apparent ceasing of “station stamping”, an absolutely appalling and degrading form of hazing female officers were previously subjected to), the overall culture is still in need of a major overhaul. This goes beyond the uniform, and speaks of institutional failures to preserve and promote equality in all aspects of the force. It may be wishful thinking, but small steps such as removing the skirt requirement may be a move in the right direction, as it would remove the overt distinction and make officers equal in all aspects of public-facing roles. Female officers would have autonomy, whilst still preserving the uniformity and formality expected within the force.


 Photo Courtesy of Pexels


So why are women still required to wear skirts in the Police? This seems to be an aspect of the uniform reminiscent of the past, with no clear reason behind its perpetuation. Having the choice to wear a skirt is one thing; being told you have to wear one to comply with official standards is another. It will be interesting to see if this policy will remain in the future, particularly after the Baroness Casey Review and subsequent promises of reform, or if this aspect of the Police will continue to cling onto the past, and skirt equality indefinitely.



 

 

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