NWLC files Amicus Brief Opposing Sexist Dress Code

Victory: On June 14, 2022, the en banc Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision that North Carolina charter schools are state actors, and that the discriminatory dress code violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was based on impermissible sex stereotypes. The court also held that Title IX applies to dress codes, reversing the district court’s dismissal of the students’ Title IX claim and remanding for further proceedings. 


It’s no secret: NWLC is opposed to sexist and racist dress codes.

We’ve detailed how dress codes harm Black girls, and have written many, many times about the discriminatory impact of dress codes that promote unacceptable stereotypes about how girls should be treated. Our advocacy shows no signs of slowing.

On July 13, we and Debevoise & Plimpton filed a ‘friend of the court’ brief in the Fourth Circuit, on behalf of 56 civil rights and public interest organizations, supporting a challenge to a school’s sexist dress code.

The Case

North Carolina’s Charter Day School (CDS) has a dress code that forces girls to wear skirts at school, while boys can wear shorts or pants. The school justifies its policy by relying on sex stereotypes—school administrators said the skirts requirement upholds “traditional values” and “preserve[s] chivalry” as a “code of conduct” for boys, which the school’s founder defined as the notion that women and girls are “fragile vessel[s] that men are supposed to take care of and honor.”

What CDS calls tradition, we call sex discrimination—and so do the girls in this case. Throughout the lawsuit before the district court, the plaintiffs, three girls enrolled at CDS, detailed how the skirts requirement limited their ability to play at recess, distracted them from learning, caused embarrassment any time a teacher reprimanded them for sitting “inappropriately,” prompted harassment from boys, and resulted in lost learning time for dress code violations.

Despite all this evidence, the district court threw out the girls’ Title IX claim. The girls, represented by the ACLU,

Our Brief

In our brief in support of the girls, we explain why Title IX absolutely prohibits policies like the skirts requirement. Title IX broadly protects against sex discrimination in all its forms. Where exceptions exist, Congress explicitly wrote them into the statute—that’s why Title IX doesn’t apply to fraternities or sororities. But dress codes aren’t part of any statutory exceptions, and that makes sense: dress codes that promote sex stereotypes are the types of policies Title IX was enacted to dismantle. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has investigated many Title IX complaints challenging discriminatory dress codes since Title IX’s enactment for this very reason.

Here are three reasons why it’s important to get rid of discriminatory dress codes like the skirts requirement:

  1. Sexist dress codes blame girls for “distracting” boys, instead of teaching boys to respect girls no matter what they’re wearing. Reinforcing these stereotypes promotes sexual harassment in schools. While the school argued that the skirts requirement was supposed to instill “respect” between boys and girls, girls at CDS complained of boys attempting to look up their skirts and teasing them when they were unable to move freely. That is not a culture of respect.
  2. Dress codes disproportionately harm girls based on race and disability. The skirts requirement is meant to instill fragility and passivity in girls, which are stereotypical, white middle-class notions of femininity. These notions often conflict with how authority figures perceive girls of color and lead school officials treat positive traits like assertiveness and outspokenness as negative behavior in need of correction, often via discriminatory discipline against Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls. Girls with disabilities, such as autism are also disproportionately affected by these policies, as it may be harder to sit “like a lady” or meet the “modesty” expectations that come with wearing a skirt.
  3. LGBTQ+ students are harmed by policies like the skirts requirements. LGBTQ+ youth face high rates of discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Binary, sexist dress codes allow schools to punish students for their gender expression and force non-binary students into a gender binary. Because of CDS’s emphasis on “traditional” cis-normative gender roles, it’s likely the skirts requirement also cruelly denies trans girls and boys the ability to dress in a way that matches their gender identity. Just as schools must allow transgender students to access facilities that match their gender identity, so must schools eliminate dress codes that force students to dress in ways inconsistent with their gender identity or expression.

We hope the Fourth Circuit reverses the lower court and holds that the skirts requirement violates Title IX.