It’s a debate that has plagued schools all over the world and across the educational spectrum. It’s a debate that seems to continue to lack a definitive answer, too:
Just how effective are school dress codes of any type?
And should that answer change for pharm and med students?
Among the classic arguments in support of dress codes in academic environments—or even a standard uniform—are that more conservative dress in general help with discipline, grades and attendance.
Arguments against dress codes and uniforms point out that any evidence in support of uniforms or a conservative dress code is flimsy and inconclusive at best, because the institutions that tend to use them have other outlying factors in common.
Other issues on the debate table range from free speech to sexual harassment, and are far from inviting to simple answers or solutions.
Let’s take a look at some of the classic arguments for and against these codes, and then see how this could change for pharm and med schools.
The arguments in favor of uniforms and dress code
The idea of promoting self-discipline is a major argument in favor of uniforms, specifically. It’s one of the reasons why doctors wear white lab coats, that familiar symbol of academic discipline that’s universally understood. Supporters of dress codes and uniform also point out that environments with rigorous dress codes come with improvements in attendance and overall behavior. Tied in with this are claims of improved academic performance, both in the forms of better grades and paying more attention in class.
When we start talking about pharm and med students, the conversation shifts to more self-aware adults. Is this population as easily influenced by dress codes and uniforms? Is there something to say about this structure as a preparation for their lab coat-wearing futures?
Another major argument in favor of dress codes goes that “the classroom is a place for learning and not for catwalks.” The idea is that fashion shouldn’t play a part in a student’s academic life and profile, especially if it serves as a distraction from learning. In a pre-med or pre-pharm environment, in particular, the argument could also be made that shows of fashion are distractions from what is already one of the toughest academic pursuits.
Closely related to fashion concerns are socio-economic concerns—students will invariably be picked on for not keeping up with fashion trends, even if they aren’t financially capable of doing so. Standard issue uniforms should effectively combat this bullying, right? Bullying isn’t limited to the playground, that much is true—and if this argument holds water, it could be equally relevant for medical and pharmaceutical students in high-stress environments.
The arguments against uniforms and dress code
While it seems clear that nothing should stand in between a student and their education, a common and powerful rebuttal to dress codes is a set of two counter-arguments to everything we just outlined:
- Free speech
- And a lack of solid evidence
There are plenty of academic papers with data implying that uniforms and strict dress codes improve attendance and behavior in the classroom. To counter, there are two important responses to this claim.
- First, there is an important difference between discipline through fear and discipline through education. If a student is less rowdy in class and skips school less often due to a fear of punishment rather than understanding the importance of paying attention or attending class, do we call the change in behavior learning or conditioning? And which will better serve a future doctor or pharmacist donning the white lab coat to serve the community?
- Second, there are papers that claim improved behavior and academic performance, but there are also academic papers that claim this is inconclusive at best. These counter-papers state that there is no consistent response to the dress code issue at hand. Evidence can be cherry-picked to favor one side or the other, and studies focusing on one factor may completely miss another.
A more immediate response to the proposal of uniforms and dress codes is the rebuttal that these implementations are a violation of human rights, specifically students’ right to freedom of speech and self-expression. If a student’s dress isn’t objectively harmful to other students or their learning experience, then perhaps the problem isn’t with fashion, but with tolerance.
One issue worth mentioning, even with unisex lab coats
One issue that’s recently garnered more attention—and which is even less cut and dry than the former—is that of sexual harassment, especially in medical and pharmaceutical programs. Although more women entering science today have tipped the scale some, most harassment victims are women, and the med and pharm school worlds are still primarily male.
Combatting the issue is paramount, and to do so, many universities around the globe have turned to dress codes and school uniforms. Studies and academic papers have shown that the adoption of uniforms have lowered the risk of sexual harassment. Any reduction in sexual harassment is undoubtedly good, but if this solution raises some red flags for you, you aren’t alone.
There is empirical evidence supporting uniforms to combat sexual harassment, but a moment’s thought might lead you to idea that this is neither a direct nor an appropriate long-term solution. The long-term solution, some would say, shouldn’t burden potential victims’ freedom of expression to lower the risk of harassment, rather take direct measures to educate all students and professors about consent and both legal and social boundaries.
The ever-so-slightly less “grey area” for pharmaceutical and medical students
While many picture their college days as something of free-will sweatpants and hoodies, another issue we’ve stressed many times before is the importance of safety for medical and pharmaceutical students, and any other student that will undergo laboratory procedures. In these environments, white lab coats are important as the internationally recommended “uniform.” Everything from lab coat style to lab coat material can play a role in your personal safety, and the need to wear a lab coat should be clear.
Fortunately, this kind of “uniform” doesn’t need to be drab. Dr. James Lab Coats are as stylish as they are trustworthy, offering properly-fitting, flattering and comfortable looks along with the necessary protection.
The evidence backing the need for uniforms in any classroom will continue to be debated, but the pride med and pharm students can feel when donning their white lab coats for the first time is an uncontroversial joy.