Should single-sex education be allowed?

That’s the question the NYT’s Room for Debate series asked yesterday, in light of a new review of research that finds that single-sex education isn’t good for students of any gender.

The authors of the study wrote:

Past reviews and our own peer-reviewed research led us to conclude that academic achievement is not superior in single-sex schools after controlling for qualities of children at entry (for example, socioeconomic status) and programs (demanding curriculums, for instance).

Additionally, based on voluminous research of the negative effects of separating people into groups, we warned that single-sex classrooms would likely generate and exacerbate stereotyping and sexist attitudes. Rather than promoting gender segregation, public schools should be striving to teach a diverse body of students to work together and to respect each other.

Jane Dammen McAuliffe, the president of the women’s college Bryn Mawr, argues that the report fails to take larger cultural forces into account, and that single sex education makes women and girls more likely to try and stay in traditionally male-dominated fields of study and work. “Even after the majority of U.S. colleges and universities have gone coed, women’s colleges continue to prepare an inordinate percentage of their students to succeed in fields traditionally dominated by men,” she writes.  Bryn Mawr apparently ranks second in the nation in the percentage of women students graduating with degrees in math, ranking higher than Cal Tech and MIT. Given how desperately we need more women in math and similarly traditionally male-dominated fields, that’s nothing to sniff at.

I spent six years in an all-girls school (grades 7-12), and I’m very glad I did. Single-sex education is, I think, more common in Australia than it is in the States, and it’s not restricted to private schools – some of Sydney’s best public high schools are single-sex. My parents planted the seeds of my feminism long before seventh grade, by my all-girls school, where we could be outspoken and smart and not worry that it might make the boys like us less, was the water that helped the tree grow tall. The culture of all-girls environments has its flaws, and the same can of course be said for co-ed environments. It worked for me, and for many of my classmates – and didn’t work so well for others.

Over at Room for Debate, Christina Hoff “Feminism is Ruining Boys” Summers argues that single-sex education should remain a legal option. She says that single-sex schooling doesn’t work for everyone, “but it can help some students to become more focused and well-rounded. Girls cannot leave it to boys to dissect the frog, and boys cannot leave it to girls to edit the school newspaper.” I don’t often find myself agreeing with Hoff Summers, but I think this might be one of those rare occasions. But these findings suggest we’re both wrong. The discussion at Room for Debate is really thought-provoking – and the larger questions of whether single-sex education is good, and whether it should even be legal, are very important ones.

What do you think? Should single-sex education be illegal?

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44 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I went to a women’s college and adored my experiences there. I truly believe I benefited from all-female classes. However, I have trouble articulating why when asked.

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      I also went to a women’s college, and loved my experience. I think a large part of it was the relief at not having to be subjected to the constant appraisal of the male gaze. The women, genderqueers, and trans men that comprised the student body could all lower their guard and “be themselves” without constantly having to worry about what cis men thought of them.

      There WERE cis men in many of the classes at my school because of cross registration, so it isn’t as thought female students “didn’t learn to compete with men” in the classroom (which is a criticism I’ve heard of all women’s schools) yet cis men also didn’t feel entitled to monopolize discussion the way I’ve seen them do at other schools, so we got the best of both worlds. And outside of the classroom, there was far greater variety in the expressions of gender among female students than I have observed at other schools or in the world at large, where masculine females are still very much outsiders.

      The culture at my school didn’t somehow impede or stunt the students’ overall ability to interact with men, either, which is another criticism I’ve heard. (Funny how all criticism of same-sex education seem to center on just how IMPORTANT cis men are.) Cis male friends and boyfriends were on campus all the time. It’s just that cis men weren’t ubiquitous, so we were able to get a break from them and create vibrant all-female (bodied) spaces for ourselves.

      Overall, I think women’s colleges are still important because sexism and misogyny still exist, and such institutions provide a safe space within an overall patriarchal culture for women to learn and grow without the constant intrusion of the cis male gaze. Not all women need such spaces, but I know I benefitted tremendously from my time at such an institution.

  2. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I have always been against single-sex education. It doesn’t teach women how to be outspoken and confident…it teaches women to be outspoken and confident among other women. You can’t learn how to interact with a group of people if you never have to interact with them. Also, this assumes that all girls want to hang out with only girls and likewise with boys. Growing up, my closest friends were boys and I would have felt very socially awkward if I had been required to choose only females as my peers. Instead of reinforcing the idea that we have these gender stereotypes, let’s work to eliminate them all together and stop drawing these gender lines.

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      What SSE might do is allow girls to grow and be comfortable with themselves enough that when they do get out into the ‘real’ world and are competing with men, they will already have the confidence they need.

      On the other hand, that effect might also be counter-acted by the increased sexism that such a model would foster. It’s easy to believe that ‘girls are X’ when you don’t spend much time around girls. Men and boys already often see women as inferior, and not being in a position to see the achievements of females their age is not going to help that at all. If we’re going to break down (gender/color/neurobiology/etc.) barriers, we need to give people opportunity to spend time around people not like them. (Own experiences–after a very sheltered childhood, I find myself hyperconscious when around people visibly different from me. It is very hard for me to treat them as I would anyone else, because I find myself analyzing every word and action I say or do)

      Oh, and agreed on the socially-awkward thing. My interests growing up tended towards more stereotypically male, and I frequently found myself more comfortable around boys than girls. Plus, boys never ragged on me for things like what I was eating, my hair, if I shaved my legs…you get the idea. An all-girls school sounds like my idea of hell.

  3. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I went to a single-sex high-school, and I think McAuliffe’s comments about the benefits of same-sex education absolutely ring true. Although my school did not call its curriculum or philosophy “feminist” it many ways it gave students opportunities we would not otherwise have had, a feminism through the back door if you will. As a writer and thespian I was able to experiment with writing strong female roles, and got to play Cyrano de Bergerac in an assignment for English class. I was able to connect the role to some issues of disability in an illuminating way. Had the class been co-ed, I doubt I would have gotten the part.

    The study makes an interesting point about teaching a diverse student body to work together. I think it would have been useful to me in high school to work with boys as peers not just potential dates. (This was not really a skill I could re-cultivate until college.) However, I think there are other ways to do this than just in school, like co-ed activities outside of school, or events done in collaboration with a brother school.

    My experience at a single-sex school has been very beneficial to me, and I hope it remains a legal option for future students.

  4. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I think “should be illegal” is a higher bar than “I think it’s wrong”, so no, I don’t think it should be illegal for private education.

    I do think sex-segregation in education, like religious-based education, is a bad and wrong idea that should not be part of public schooling in any way – we should be reflexively suspicious a) of segregation in general and b) of anything that identifies a person’s gender as the single most important fact about them, and there is no observed systematic benefit to overcome our suspicion.

    Ironically the statistic Professor McAuliffe uses to promote Bryn Mawr – it “apparently ranks second in the nation in the percentage of women students graduating with degrees in math, ranking higher than Cal Tech and MIT” is a nonsensical one. If all the women at Caltech who graduated with biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering degrees didn’t exist, its percentage of women graduating with math degrees would be much higher and higher than Bryn Mawr’s, but that wouldn’t be a good thing!

    This isn’t even getting into how sex-segregated education fails when dealing with people who don’t fit neatly into an exact gender binary slot, which is in my opinion an intractable and unavoidable obstacle all on its own.

    In short, sex-segregated education goes against some of my fundamental (I think feminist) principles: we shouldn’t consider people’s gender to be the single most important thing about them; segregation based on innate characteristics is repulsive; we should carefully avoid making life even harder for people who don’t match up perfectly with the notional cisgender binary; we should be working to tear down differences in how we treat people of two different genders instead of reinforcing rigid societal differences between them. The only reason to override our principles is if there is a serious practical benefit that makes us grit our teeth and take the short-term advantage – and we have found, reasonably conclusively, that there is not.

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Serious respect to Chloe for writing the words “these findings suggest we’re both wrong”, though; it takes a lot of intellectual rigor to be able to say that and mean it about issues that are important to us!

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      I have to highly disagree with the notion that single-sex schools assume that gender is the single most important fact about people. I go to Agnes Scott College, and I’d really say that it is the opposite. By being in a single-sex environment, I think that, as a student, I notice more about the other aspects of the women I have been fortunate enough to go to school with. I feel like sex has been taken out of the equation. I also feel like, while we are single-SEX, we are not single-GENDER. I think gender is somewhat easier to critique, experiment with, and express here in a single-sex environment.

      • Posted October 19, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Here is what I am saying: a hypothetical prospective student applies to go to Agnes Scott College. What is the single most important fact about that student, that immediately decides whether it is possible for them to be your classmate or not?

  5. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely think it should be allowed. This is surprising info to me because up til now my understanding was single-sex education was bad for boys (because boys thrive on competition, and if girls are around they’re more likely to try and participate) but good for girls (girls feel more uncomfortable being assertive and asking questions in a coed environment).

    My own experience has been that single-sex education was great. I went to a private girls’ high school in the Midwest and absolutely feel that it gave me some time to develop confidence and public speaking skills so that now, as I attend a coed university, I am comfortable asking questions in class and participating. I truly hope that single-sex education continues because to eliminate it could, in the long run, impact women very negatively in general.

  6. Posted October 18, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I myself would have been fairly miserable in a single-sex educational environment. It’s probably my own bias speaking, but my opinion of keeping men separate from women has forever been changed ever since I read Lord of the Flies.

    Here’s a question or two. Do we assume that positive changes are made based on fairly selfish instances of human nature, or do we concede a moral component to our decisions? Are distinctions between men and women better or worse because of conscience or because of factors based on how we have evolved as a civilization? As much as it might resist this label, Feminism is a moral movement.

  7. Posted October 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The article itself is extremely light on details. The most I could garner was that they found test scores not to be related to whether a school was single-sex or coed, but it doesn’t say what test scores. Are they school tests, whose standards could effectively be based on the school makeup itself? Standardized tests? It is not at all clear.

    And that’s all the evidence that is presented. The rest of the article basically scoffs at physiological arguments advanced for single-sex education, but presents no actual counter-evidence. Have I overlooked something?

    But even if we accept the basic premise of no better test scores, are test scores the be-all and end-all of education? If girls in all-girl high schools are more likely to venture into science and math, isn’t that a benefit in off itself, even if their scores are no better?

    As far as I am concerned, the article doesn’t come close to “debunking” anything. If there were no advantage to gender segregation, would a site like this even have a reason to exist?

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      The first link from the introduction of the debate is to the report in Science magazine summarizing recent research. You can read the full Science magazine article, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling”, thanks to our friends at the ACLU who recently posted in the Feministing community section about this issue and this article.

      You can find in that review what appears to me to be a fairly comprehensive set of references to support the authors’ thesis that “There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

      • Posted October 18, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, I realized after I’d posted that I’d been unclear. I’d read the Science Magazine article. Yes, it has a lot of citations, but the article itself presents very little to back up the claim that there is no advantage to single-sex education.

        In addition, as a number of comments on the NYT article point out, co-ed education has its own way of increasing gender stereotyping, with boys and girls more likely to leave certain activities to the other sex, something they cannot so easily do in a single-sex environment.

        I’d say their claim is simply not proven.

        • Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          The article itself presents very little because it is a review article that summarizes the results of many other pieces of research. You do have to actually go read the other articles they summarize if you want the data.

          Which of the articles listed in the References section did you read?

  8. Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I went to a coed school and spent most of my time there being bullied by boys to the point where I refused to go in after 4 years of nonstop torment from them. Before this event, I was perfectly confident around them, but now, at college, I’ve been reduced to a stuttering wreck for fear that anything I say will bring down a new tirade of abuse, in spite of the fact that they seem perfectly nice. Retrospectively, I think I would have done better at an all-girls school, though I recognise that my experience certainly doesn’t apply to all girls.

  9. Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m a student at Smith College, and I have found that experience to be incredibly valuable in a number of ways. For one thing, we have a much higher percentage of women on the faculty than, say, the Ivy League universities. It’s so important for young women to see other women succeeding in fields that interest them, and Smith gives us that in spades, not only with the faculty, but also with tightly knit network of alums who are eager to help other Smithies. That’s not to say that you can’t find female role models at coed universities, but the fact remains that, due to ingrained prejudice, any space that is not explicitly focused on women will likely be focused on men.

    Smith is also the first place that I ever heard about trans* issues. Women’s colleges can provide a safer space for people questioning their gender or considering transition. (And the same goes for sexuality, for that matter.) The relationship of the Smith administration to the trans* population may be ambiguous, but most of the student body is both supportive and willing to defend our fellow students’ rights when necessary. Quite honestly, I feel free to exchange ideas on gender and sexuality at Smith that I would not have been comfortable discussing in a coed environment, at least not initially. I like having the space to develop my thoughts and opinions before bringing them into the wider world.

    As a disclaimer, I must say that I have never attended a coed university in the U.S. (I’m currently studying in Paris, but the educational model is entirely different and their is no “campus life” because there is no campus.) However, it is my impression that many universities have a toxically sexist culture which leads to a lot of unhealthy interactions. Liz, you say “You can’t learn how to interact with a group of people if you never have to interact with them,” which is true. But I don’t think that interacting primarily with female-bodied people, be they women, transmen, or genderqueer folk, has in any way inhibited my ability to interact with male-bodied people. If anything, I’ve been able to reach a point where I can put that constant flirtation dance of high school aside and really focus on getting to know or working together with the cismen that I meet. (I don’t believe that I currently know any male-bodied trans* folk…)

    Granted, primary and secondary schools are different in that there is rarely exchange with other schools, so the kids indeed may never have to interact with boys/girls. I am honestly not sure what I think about single-sex education at the primary or secondary level. And at the university level, it does still pose problems, especially in terms of deciding who is and is not eligible to attend. So yes, there are flaws in single-sex education, but I don’t think that there are enough to justify outlawing it, and I firmly believe that women’s colleges can be very valuable for some people.

  10. Posted October 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Sorry in advance. This is a rant. And it was written like a rant (ie not particularly well).

    Single-sex education makes me cringe. Growing up, there was the option of a girls only school, and quite honestly at the time I was insulted at the idea that I was considered more like people because we shared a gender/sex than any other factor. My relationships through grade school were often with boys. At the time, the notion of an all girls school felt like an invalidation of those relationships, naming them as unimportant and impossible.

    As well, I -hated- many girls at the time for the ridiculous way they fell into stereotypes (although I was certainly prey to that too). I no longer hate young women trying to navigate gender in this way, but the hatred was there because I felt the pressure of the stereotype and anyone who confirmed it in some way seemed to be personally insulting my ability to be something other than it. All girls schools were in various ways conceived as part of this.

    I can’t believe that by somehow limiting the group of people I interacted with by gender, something I am sure would only result in greater confirmation of gender as really truly two (and only two) different groups, I could have had a happier existence.

    Given that I identified as heterosexual at that point in time in my life, that also would have meant removing the group of people who I was sometimes attracted to (but also had wonderful friendships with), who I was learning about my sexuality through, having early romances with, etc. I don’t consider that stuff “distracting”, I think it was just as important to my well-being then as it is now.

    Finally, while I think it is downright wrong to use gender as a grouping device (there are rare instances where women-only spaces seem appropriate to me – your whole life, which is what school is at that point, isn’t one of them), I am especially concerned about the possibilities of gender non-conformity and gender queerness in these spaces. When you’re only there on the basis that you fit in a box, then there -really- isn’t the middle ground in between or outside of boys and girls.

    Even for those who felt good about their experiences in single-sex education I’m willing to bet you can think of lots of people at your school who did not feel like they were part of the big universal sisterhood.

  11. Posted October 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I feel very strongly that single-sex education should be allowed. I think it’s unfortunate that we live in a world in which that shelter can be nice, but I think it’s none-the-less true. The study cited by the NYT debate people says that scholastic achievement did not improve in single-sex education settings, but (as is pointed out later with the women in math example), it doesn’t account for how gender factors into what we decide to do. I sang in a boys choir for many years of my life, something I never would have done that early on if I’d only had mixed choirs to choose from – singing in a choir at that age is definitely considered to be a girl’s activity. Because of it, I learned all sorts of things I never would have otherwise, even if I’d been capable of learning those same things in a mixed choir.

  12. Posted October 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Should it be illegal? I don’t think so.

    Do I like it? Not really. Segregation is a powerful act that requires some pretty powerful rationale to justify it. There isn’t significant data to support the idea that gender-segregated education has significant benefits.

    There are certainly many positive anecdotes about it, but the same can be said for a lot of groups or organizations with questionable practices (i.e. Boy Scouts and their policy on homosexuality). We can acknowledge that some schools provide their students with great educations and experiences whilst simultaneously recognizing that there’s a core flaw in their model.

    Similarly, many colleges are, through de facto policies, significantly segregated along racial and class lines. That many people have a good time and learn a lot at Bryn Mawr doesn’t change the fact that the school is segregated in more ways than one, and while gender segregation is the most OBVIOUS feature, I can say (as someone who went to school within walking distance of the school) that the most notable features of that school’s area are whiteness and wealth.

    It’s a very anti-intersectionalist position to put gender at the absolute top of the hierarchy of oppression.

    Should it be illegal? No, but it’s nothing I want for anyone in my family.

  13. Posted October 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I was bullied in elementary school and REALLY bullied in middle school. As the years went on, most of the bullying was gender-based. I left my first middle school and transferred to an all-girls middle/high school, where I had a much more productive experience. The depression didn’t go away (it still hasn’t), but being at the all-girls school was VERY important for me, and I have no doubt that it saved my life. If I had a daughter, I would not hesitate to send her to an all-girls school (if that’s what she wanted, of course). All-girls schools can be great, nurturing, enriching environments.

    Also: my school was not a private school–it was public. It consistently ranks near the top of my province’s academic rankings. My classmates and I were very politically active, sports and music were extremely important and well-developed programs, and most of the grads went on to study science in university.

  14. Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I graduated from Bryn Mawr College, and I would highly recommend it to any high school girl looking for an excellent education. Being around other women who aren’t afraid of speaking their minds — women who aren’t obsessed with dressing a certain way to attract guys, or acting like they’re not smart so the boys will like them better — is a refreshing and wonderful experience. The confidence we gain from simply seeing other women being capable stays with us for the rest of our lives. I’ve seen the difference between my female colleagues who went to a coed college vs. those who went to single sex colleges, and it is quite noticeable.

    Make single-sex education illegal? Over my dead body!

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      I love Wellesley, but sometimes I wish I had gone to Bryn Mawr instead. True story.

    • Posted October 19, 2011 at 12:48 am | Permalink

      “Being around other women who aren’t afraid of speaking their minds — women who aren’t obsessed with dressing a certain way to attract guys, or acting like they’re not smart so the boys will like them better — is a refreshing and wonderful experience.”

      I went to school down the block at ‘Nova. There were many women there who were not afraid to speak their minds, nor were they obsessed with clothes or appearing less intelligent than they were.

      A good educational environment can achieve everything you stated without resorting to segregation. No need to make it illegal, but whether or not it’s legal doesn’t really change whether or not it’s good.

  15. Posted October 18, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    According to Wikipedia (yeah, i know) Smith College is the only women’s college in the US to offer an engineering degree and it is a BS in Engineering Science. I have never actually met an engineer who got a degree in engineering science. This, to me as a women engineer, means that women’s only colleges are not on par with other coed institutions. The ratio of women to men in Math is much, much, much higher than the ratio in Engineering. Also, what about grad programs?

    I am not saying there is anything wrong with with single-sex education, honestly if I could have earned my degree at a women’s college I think I would have loved it but please let’s remember that women’s colleges don’t offer a lot of degrees. They aren’t an option for a lot of women seeking degrees in field dominated by men.

    Once again nothing wrong with separate, if it is your choice, but let’s not pretend they are equal.

  16. Posted October 19, 2011 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    I cringe at the heterosexist gender stereotyping that is used to justify single-sex education. Oh good, so girls won’t try to look dumb to impress the boys. What about the queer girls who don’t give half a shit about what boys think of them? Not to mention, SSE can create a huge problem for trans students who are transitioning.

    A lot of the justification is based on stereotypes about how girls are better communicators and boys are “hard-wired” to be kinetic learners and other crap that I have not seen supported by rigorous research that accounts for socialization and biology.

    Overall, I’d just say that there are tons of problems with bullying, with some favored teaching styles not working with a lot of different kinds of learners, and many other issues in education that very much need to be addressed. Gender segregation is absolutely not the solution.

  17. Posted October 19, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    Having gone to an all-girl’s Catholic high school, I tend to think that single-sex education is a really good thing. My experiences there were awesome and empowering–but then again, my case was probably special because own of the tenants of our school was “empowering young women.” Still, coming from a city where single-sex high school education is one of the most common forms of education, I firmly believe that single-sex education can be a truly good thing. I didn’t have nearly as much drama in my school life as my friends at public, co-ed schools, for starters.

    Also, as sad as it is, I think that when put in a co-ed setting, girls aren’t taught to be empowered in any way. If they become so it’s because they figure it out on their own, not because they are taught, in a mixed environment, to do so. More attention is generally paid to boys because they are the dominant sex, and this fact exists in the classroom as well.

    Overall, I think we should be able to choose single-sex education. It’s right for some people; for others, it’s not. Just like everything else in the world.

    • Posted October 19, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      I am surprised that there have not been a higher number of women from religious education institutions commenting on this article. I spent 12 years in Catholic school and was institutionally discriminated against; it’s cultural in that setting. Women are not afforded position in religious institutions that would lead them to believe that they have equal worth and value as men.
      I went to a single sex Woman’s college (the reference to girls schools makes me cringe), not because I deliberately chose the single sex education paradigm, but because I was given a scholarship. I have since become a strong advocate for single sex education. In 4 years I was challenged, exposed to hundreds of different religions and cultures and encouraged to break stereotypes, not adhere to them. None of this was because I wasn’t worried about make-up in my classes or impressing boys, it was because this institution fostered an atmosphere of pride in women, in feminism and the bonds of sisterhood. Additionally, excellence was expected and demanded of me, we were constantly given examples of successful women and challenged to meet our full potential, whether that is as a mother or a professional. I took leadership positions and gained confidence that has had direct implications for me in my present position in male-dominated profession. I also interacted with women that had a powerful impact on my life, from fellow students to professors and mentors. I’ve also never had a problem interacting with men, professionally or socially, my personal growth was not stunted by my environment, in fact, just the opposite occurred.
      I’m not sure how that experience can be translated to test scores, but I certainly know that publically funded single sex education should not be eliminated based on academic standards alone, just as arts programs should not be eliminated strictly because their contribution to academic excellence cannot be measured.

      • Posted October 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

        In my post, I referred to my school as an “all-girls school” because it was a middle school and a high school, not a college.

        Also, my school was Catholic, and we were taught to challenge everything we learned, including what we learned about religion. Perhaps this is uncommon for a Catholic school, but it was certainly more open, progressive and feminist than the other high schools in town.

  18. Posted October 19, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I’m an alumna of a women’s college (Smith, and I’m delighted to read LisaM’s comment). I’ve seen plenty of attacks on women’s colleges in the thirty years since I graduated, and I’m sure I’ll see plenty more.

    My take? Single sex education MUST remain an option for women. Not only do women who’ve graduated from all-female colleges appear in Who’s Who in disproportionate numbers (something like 1/3 of the women in recent editions went to single-sex schools despite the huge drop in the numbers of available schools – and yes, that continues regardless of when the woman graduate), the students are much more likely to major in science, math, computer science, and engineering than women at coed schools. The pressure and harassment that women face at coed schools to major in the humanities and leave science and math to the boys simply doesn’t exist.

    Other advantages – no football teams, so there’s no Big Sports Program sucking money and time from academics while allowing athletes to run amok.

    No men on campus means that women aren’t forced to do the usual dance where we act one way around our friends and one way around men, especially men they’re trying to impress. And if you think that doesn’t still happen, well, guess again.

    All leadership positions are held by women, with none of the pressure for the man to be president and the women to be vice president or secretary – and again, if you think that doesn’t still happen a lot of places, take a good close look at the average coed school, especially the public land grant universities where most students get their education.

    Finally, and most important – we live in a sexist world, where despite everything we do women are still expected to defer to men, be sex objects for men, and let men take the lead. That’s why we need things like SlutWalk and Hollaback, and why girls drop out of science classes just about the time they hit puberty and suddenly are expected to pay more attention to hooking a boyfriend than studying chemistry. Women’s colleges are the one time in a woman’s life where this simply isn’t a factor. All the courses, the libraries, the facilities, the majors, the professors’ attention – EVERYTHING is centered on women. It’s four precious years where students don’t have to deal with the whole bullshit deal that women get practically from birth, where they can concentrate on themselves and their studies without the pressure to conform and be a Good Girl that crushes so many potential Curies and Yalows.

    And what is the response? “I’m afraid of single sex education.” “Girls who go to women’s colleges are too weak to fight.” “Women’s colleges are obsolete.” All of these show just how deeply ingrained the message that women in a group, especially women concentrating on their minds instead of their bodies and their men, are a threat to the status quo is. It’s as if all the benefits that women gain from those four years where THEY are the point are somehow less important than “learning to get along with men.”

    Guess what? WE DO THAT EVERY DAY OF OUR LIVES. Four years where we DON’T shouldn’t be too much to ask.

    • Posted October 19, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      One correction: that should be *2/3* of women in Who’s Who. And yes, that’s still accurate, even for younger generations. Test scores aren’t the only measure of an education, and using them as a reason to slam single sex education is absurd.

    • Posted October 19, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Do you think of segregation in schooling as a necessary evil to make life easier on the students, and one that wouldn’t be necessary if there were enough sufficiently feminist unsegregated institutions? Or do you think of sex-segregation in schooling as a positive good that should go on forever?

    • Posted October 19, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      a. Comparing “who’s who” lists and success in general presumes that the only significant difference between exclusively female colleges and coed institutions is the admissions criteria regarding biological sex. This is a fundamentally flawed position.

      The colleges being mentioned (Smith, Bryn Mawr, etc.) are all bastions of white economic privilege. Comparing the results of an all-female expensive private college to a gigantic coed state school with subsidized tuition, and drawing inferences about success solely on the biological sex distinction, is intellectually disingenuous.

      I see this in your argument about “football teams” and “athletes running amok”. Aside from the fact that women can be, and are, athletes (I knew my share of female athletes who ran amok, from time to time), you’re comparing large, for-profit sports programs at very different types of universities to those of wealthy, academically-oriented universities with large endowments and tuition. The willful ignorance here about class and its impact on education and the educational environment is spectacular.

      It doesn’t surprise me that women who go to Smith and Bryn Mawr are successful. That’s how expensive colleges work: they give folks who can pay the up-front cost access to greater opportunity.

      b. Your statements about the way women act around men is significantly heternormative, blurring the experiences of attraction held by a large number of college students.

      “Guess again” is not a strong case for hetersexism. That aside, it’s not an argument in favor of segregated education, but rather ongoing education about gender performance.

      c. You’re not representing the other arguments posted here accurately or fairly. Setting up straw arguments is poor rhetoric, and is flagrantly dishonest.

      There is significant research to suggest that single-sex education does not achieve the benefits you claim it does. The arguments against SSE (not making it illegal, mind you, just arguments against employing it) here have questioned whether the costs of segregation outweigh the benefits of it in this instance. Segregation, even voluntary segregation, is a powerful decision, and one that ought to be questioned given its significance and consequences.

      • Posted October 19, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

        1. The Seven Sisters are not “bastions of white economic privilege” and haven’t been for years – fully a quarter of the students at Smith in recent classes have been the first in their family to attend ANY college, let alone a first-rank liberal arts school, and many of them are people of color. Perhaps you should do a little research on the current demographics before you judge, hm?

        This also ties into your comment about my “spectacular ignorance” of class issues: Smith, Bryn Maw, Mount Holyoke, and many other women’s colleges are actively recruiting students from working class, poor, and non-white families, and giving the students the grants and financial aid they need to attend. Are you really saying that these girls should turn down a chance at top-rank education because the school catered to educated white women for the first hundred years of existence? Or that poor women should go to land grant schools out of class solidarity? Or is it simply that you’re stereotyping women’s colleges based on what you think they are instead of what they are today?

        2. Of course women participate in athletics. Where I did say they didn’t? And what does this have to do with big-time college athletics taking money and attention from academics?

        3. Your first point attributes positions to me that are not accurate and ignores the whole point of my post: that women being the center of academics and pedagogical attention leads to higher lifetime achievement, especially in science and mathematics.

        4. Your comment about heteronomativeness and attraction shows only that you have never actually lived in a single-sex environment. I have. And yes, women *do* act differently when they don’t have to interact with men every day. You may not like it, you may not believe it, but it’s true. And yes, it’s still true today; I know some very recent Smith alumnae who confirmed that what I saw thirty years ago is still true.

        5. “Ongoing education about gender performance” is all well and good in a theory class. It does nothing to help a young woman today who’s been bullied and pressured to major in sociology instead of physics, or decided that being the only female math major wasn’t worth it and switched to government. It also demonstrates a certain lack of awareness of how reality works.

        6. Calling me disingenuous and intellectually dishonest when you are guilty of perpetrating stereotypes about women’s colleges does nothing but make you look foolish. Have you ever even visited one? Or spoken to an alumna? Or done any research as to what they’re like today instead of fifty years ago?

        7. Single sex education isn’t for everyone, but claiming that there’s a “significant body of research” proving that it’s no better than coed education may or may not be true. Proof, please?

        • Posted October 20, 2011 at 2:58 am | Permalink

          1. Not one of the Seven Sisters has a student body that comes anywhere close to the diversity that would allow itself to be described as “white and economically affluent”.

          That you use the term “many”, rather than an actual figure, speaks volumes about the whiteness and economic privilege of these schools.

          I did my research, both in person and using independent verification. Bryn Mawr, for example, is a skip away from one of the largest cities in America (with an African American population that is almost half of the entire city). The school is 7% African American.

          As for “reaching out”, tell it to the kids in Philly. I worked with the kids they were supposedly reaching out to. Telling them they’re interested or offering a campus tour isn’t “reaching out”, it’s merely putting out feelers. Without the institutional support to aid those students in the application process the results are a lot of wishful thinking and wondering with the applications aren’t coming in.

          Or, to put it another way, as someone who has worked with quite a few girls who were “reached out to” by a Seven Sisters university or two (Smith was a culprit as well), “actively recruiting” my foot. Whatever helps you sleep at night, though.

          I’d love for wealthy, white, women’s colleges to actually attempt to become beacons of diversity of all kinds. The reality, though, is that they are economic and social institutions with a vested and historic interest in preserving white wealth, and it shows in their student bodies and practices.

          It’s kind of silly to tout these schools for the graduates they produce when those schools cost over $40,000 to attend, annually. Who wouldn’t expect those graduates to be successful? It’s how the system is designed: those who can pay the price of admission into our class system (which is tied deeply to race) can often expect positive results down the line.

          2. You wrote:

          “Other advantages – no football teams, so there’s no Big Sports Program sucking money and time from academics while allowing athletes to run amok.”

          No football teams /= no big sports programs. Your use of the term “athletes to run amok” specifically genders athletics by ignoring the possibility that female athletes can, and do, run amok from time to time. I know some rowdy field hockey women who would seriously dispute your assertions and typification of athletics and their participants.

          3. No, it doesn’t. You’re drawing assertions from a limited sample group, and that group is typified by major social and racial privilege. That is not a valid basis for the claim that “women being the center of academics and pedagogical attention leads to higher lifetime achievement, especially in science and mathematics.”

          It’s worth noting that only one of the Seven Sisters even offers an engineering degree, too.

          Even so, back to the Bryn Mawr example: even if we allow that Pre-Med studies count toward your sciences assertion, only 26% of graduates pursued science or mathematics. Remove Pre-Med and the figure dwindles to 14.5%.

          4. Don’t dictate my experiences. I have experience with single sex environments. While it is true that *some* women interact differently without the presence of men, your statements regarding attraction and gender performance were distinctly diminishing the experiences of many people.

          5. Please tell me how reality works. Explain to me how mentoring programs or anti-bullying programs are not superior to voluntary segregation.

          Theory is practice is theory is practice. They’re inextricably intertwined, and setting up some false dichotomy does nobody a shred of good. Good theory is good practice.

          In that vein, those arguing here from “theory” are arguing that segregation is not a superior practice to a variety of other methods of tearing down the barriers women face in education, and can create its own problems, too.

          6. They’re not stereotypes. They’re factually accurate representations of those institutions supported by everything from tuition prices to student demographics. Claiming that rich, white universities are accurate tools to gauge the educational potential of single-sex education serves to make invisible whole communities of women.

          Beyond that, though, I traveled through Bryn Mawr for four years. I walked around the town and the campus. I met and befriended alums and students. To say I’ve visited one of those institutions is a major understatement.

          I’m not claiming they’re no better than they were 50 years ago. Most every college is. That’s not a defense, though.

          Beyond that, your straw arguments were, and remain, disingenuous. You represented positions that nobody in this comments thread brought up and presented them as counter-arguments to your positions. It is the definition of using a strawperson argument, and it’s intellectually dishonest to do so.

          7. Why is the burden of proof on those who advocate against segregation? Segregation is an extraordinary act, and requires extraordinary proof to validate it, not the other way around.

  19. Posted October 19, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I think it’s worth carefully drawing the line between sex-segregation in schools for children (i.e., elementary through high school), which the Science paper is addressing, and sex-segregation in colleges and universities.

    The two are obviously related, but there are very significant differences between pedagogy aimed at children and teenagers vs. an academic environment for young adults. The research cited focuses on the observed lack of benefits for sex-segregated primary and secondary education. I do not think it addresses university-level segregation.

    I understand that alumnae of sex-segregated colleges naturally want to defend their valuable experiences there (heck, I had to leap in and defend Caltech’s honor! ;) ) but I think such experiences are not necessarily directly relevant to the question of whether primary and secondary schools should be sex-segregated.

  20. Posted October 19, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I attended an all-girls high school. I was the victim of severe bullying. While I had both male and female bullies, I had a lot more that were male and they were much worse the female ones. So I wonder if things would have been better if all my classmates were girls.

    • Posted October 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      I had male and female bullies in elementary and middle school, but the girls were always much worse when the boys were around. It was almost like they were pressured to behave a certain way around them. When I switched to an all-girls school, it got MUCH better. People weren’t perfect and there were still some issues, but it wasn’t outright bullying like it had been before. It was more… “drama.” But you’ll get drama anywhere, anytime (heck, I’m in my mid-twenties and there’s still tons of drama in my life; you think everyone will grow out of it but it never happens!).

  21. Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Alot of arguments for single-sex education remind me of feminist separatist arguments from the 70s. Should we attempt to change sexist behaviour and institutions, or should we escape sexism by creating women-only spaces? Personally, I think using segregation to deal with sexism seems like a cop out, like admiting that we can’t change the way men treat women and so we may as well stop trying. There ARE school administrations that refuse to deal with the fact that gender-based discrimination occurs and I think people should have the option of legally attending a single-sex school because of this. However, I do know people who attended single-sex high schools (male and female) who experienced intense homophobia and gender-policing, in a far more institutional and pervasive way than I did at my co-ed high school, so single-sex education isn’t a guarantee that sexism won’t be a problem.

  22. Posted October 20, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    The study makes a good point- it may very well be the types of people that the schools attract, rather than the genders of the school bodies that turn out better results. On the other hand I see how an all girl’s school could be positive for feminism and for girl’s in particular excelling at traditionally male fields. I don’t think the same holds true for all boy’s schools though which I think foster male privilege.

  23. Posted October 20, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I’m seeing alot of opinions of single sex education here, and I’m not surprised that pretty much everyone against it never went to a single sex school. But people should start listening to those who received their education in a single sex environment before they condemn it; they might learn something! (I’ve heard of mansplaining and whitesplaining, is this coedschoolsplaining? I’m hearing alot about how bad single sex education is from people with absolutely no personal experience with it.)

    Regarding limited fields of study…most women’s colleges are small, so not all majors will be available. That’s true for many small schools, even coed ones. However, Bryn Mawr College has an agreement with the California Institute of Technology where students can acquire an engineering degree (the 3-2 program, with 3 years of study at BMC and 2 at CIT). They’ve had that since the 1980′s, if not earlier.

    And ‘bastions of white economic privilege’? Maybe decades ago, but most of the people I knew at Bryn Mawr received financial aid. And there were plenty of non-white students there.

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think this is necessarily one of those cases where personal experience should reign supreme. The ‘splaining’ phenomena you describe, I believe, are a presumption of superior knowledge over a field that the ‘splainee’ has knowledge in, and specifically one that is all about the ‘splainee’s life subjective experience.

      The argument against sex-segregated education is not that all sex-segregated secondary and primary schools are bad. It is that, when compared to other non-segregated but otherwise equivalent primary and secondary schools, there is no evidence that they are any better, and that segregation is an inherent ill that we should avoid in the absence of benefit. The argument is that if we took those resources we are spending to segregate schools and instead used that time, money, and effort to promote gender equality, we would see better results.

      So, since we are discussing a systematic issue, people’s personal experiences are not automatically authoritative, especially when they are in the form “I went to a segregated school and had a positive experience there.” How do we know that they might not have had an equally or more positive experience in a hypothetical non-segregated school with a similar level of resources, staff commitment, and parent involvement?

      Well, with social science, and a lot of hard work researching, gathering data, and analyzing statistics, that’s how. Maybe countering social science research with personal anecdote should be considered amateursocialscientistsplaining! ;)

      Of course, I don’t mean to dismiss the value of personal experience entirely and intend no offense to all of the other Feministing readers sharing their views here in this comment thread, which I have appreciated reading. And, just to re-emphasize, I have not seen data regarding segregation at the college & university level, and therefore am making no claim about it – just the primary & secondary school level.

      I think Bryn Mawr’s agreement with Caltech must be very rarely executed – I didn’t know it existed and never heard of anyone from Bryn Mawr during my time at Caltech. Interesting to know, though! If you’re interested, Caltech only started admitting female students in 1970 (! very embarrassing!) and still has a notably unbalanced undergraduate gender ratio – although it has been slowly creeping towards equality over the years and is now at about 40% female.

  24. Posted October 20, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I think that the benefits being touted by all girls colleges in this thread are less about the fact that gender is segregated and more about the philosophical approach that the schools are using. I feel that I would have done much better if I were a woman in a woman’s college rather than as a man at a co-ed school. It’s not because of the sex or gender segregation, but rather because of the supportive environment and the culture of the schools. I was privileged enough to take a class at Berkeley – Female Sexuality, which only allows a small handful of men into the class each semester (I while hundreds of women take the class every year, only 3-8 men do). It was my favorite class at Berkeley. I wish that more men were allowed to take that class. I feel like it would go a long way towards ending sexism and increasing awareness in general.

    The thing that most commenters are really talking about with single sex education schools is that they create safe spaces for women. It’s possible to create those safe spaces without excluding everyone who happened to be born with a Y chromosome. Using admissions standards and a strict code of conduct, as was done in Fem Sex at Berkeley, you can still create a safe space for learning and growth without sex segregation.

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