ACLU: Dividing classes by sex promotes harmful stereotypes

Vintage photograph of girls sitting at desks typing on typewriters

Image via the ACLU

A recent report by the ACLU confirms what many of us feminists/gender advocates/smart people might already suspect: that single-sex education programs, often based in ridiculous, unfounded, and outdated gender stereotypes, don’t help kids learn and in fact can be detrimental to their social and educational experience. According to the ACLU, administrators and educators are increasingly constructing single-sex classes and curricula based on the unfounded theory that boys and girls are “hard-wired” to learn differently, leading to boys and girls across the U.S. being separated into different classrooms for all their academic classes and  taught using radically different methods.

The scenes they describe are right out of a gender essentialist nightmare: the boys’ classroom “is brightly lit and cool, and the students are allowed to run around to blow off steam. They can sit in beanbag chairs if they wish and their desks are moveable and do not face each other.” On the other hand, the girls’ classrooms “are warm and dimly lit, and students are expected to remain in their seats and face each other while they work, even if they find that distracting.
 Girls are supposed to discuss their feelings about novels while boys are supposed to discuss the action in the books.” How very 1800’s, and ll paid for by your tax dollars- scary!

Despite these disturbing trends, the ACLU confirms that these sorts of environments are not the best way for young people to learn. “There is no educational evidence that single-sex education is superior to a coeducational environment, and mounting evidence that sex separation can be detrimental to the academic performance of both sexes,” they maintain, pointing to studies that debunk these theories such as Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender.

In other words, segregation by gender doesn’t work and in fact, promotes harmful stereotypes and social behaviors.

According to the blog of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), the ACLU report echoes the findings of a study on single-sex academic classes by the FMF back in June, which found that from 2007 to 2010, over 1,000 public K-12 schools instituted deliberate single-sex classes, reflecting a “troubling trend” that originated in the Bush Administration and its weakened restrictions on sex segregation in public schools.

The ACLU is taking this fight to the streets- they recently filed a lawsuit to challenge a same-sex education program at Van Devender Middle School (or Vandy), a public school in Wood County WV, as discriminatory . They are representing a mother and her three daughters currently enrolled at Vandy in that claim.

If you agree that children in public schools shouldn’t be segregated based on their sex, here’s a petition created to stop the practice of segregating students at Van Devender Middle School by gender, based on the argument put forth by the ACLU. You know what to do.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • thecommonwoman

    While I understand the problems in the given examples of forced sex-segregation and of radically different (and stereotypical) learning environments by gender, I’m troubled by the flat assertion that dividing education by gender provides substandard learning, promotes stereotypes and creates harmful social behaviors. (What does “harmful social behaviors” even mean? am I the only one flashingback to diatribes about single-sex education causing rampant lesbianism and other “immorality”?)

    I firmly believe that this discussion needs way more complexity. Are we implying that women’s colleges also “don’t work and in fact, promote harmful stereotypes and social behaviors”? Surely not. I understand the difference between private women’s colleges and public single-sex classrooms, as well as the different environments, privileges, and choices each allow (or don’t), however that complexity is not coming across in this article at all.

    Perhaps it’s not the fact that people are sepearated by gender that creates problems, but rather the attitudes we have toward separating people by gender and what we decide to do with each group based on our attitudes towards them. Women’s colleges (and yes some k12 girls’ schools) believe firmly in the ability of women & girls to be fucking amazing and the folks who attend those schools mostly go on to be amazing in many different ways. But a school that divides folks by gender and then foists their sterotypes and biases upon the way they teach each group is of course going to create problems. Surely we see the difference?

  • Katey Smagur

    Although the descriptions of these same-sex classrooms sound problematic due to beliefs about hardwired differences between the sexes, not all same-sex education is harmful. I went to an all-girl high school; not only did I receive a fantastic education there, it made me into the feminist I am today.

  • The Antitype

    How the hell is the ACLU planning to argue that case. There’s no immutable right for girls to learn with boys around, and unless they can prove the quality of education for one of the groups is worse than the other, they can’t argue the girls are suffering from it.

    • Dan

      “Separate but equal” was struck down by the courts a long time ago.

  • scottishtanningsecrets

    I could be in the minority here, but I’d like to point out that I attended a private girls school and did get some benefits out of it.

    Most importantly in my opinion, a girls school created an an artistic environment (I’ll focus on creative writing and theatre since that’s where I did most of my extracurriculars) that allowed us to focus on stories of women’s friendships, and put on plays featuring more complex female characters than those with majority male casts. This space was inherently an all-female space where such ideas could be explored.

    People were not constantly asking if this private space for women was necessary or being attended often enough, as was the case with the women’s center at my college.

    Though my high school has never identified as feminist, I feel it did a lot to lay the foundations for much of the feminist thinking I developed in college. My school also helped combat the harmful stereotype that science, math, and sports were for boys and men by hiring passionate teachers who wanted to see
    more women in these areas.

    I do not remember any instances of tailoring the rooms specifically to girls (though I was never specifically looking for it).

    All of this said, I don’t think single-sex schooling is for everyone and there is a tendency to see women and men as inherently different (though discussions of gender and LGBT issues in my school later on make me hopeful that there’s some wiggle room being created.) I was grateful for the renewed chances I had and college to create intellectual relationships with male peers.

    While the ACLU study I’m sure has merit for public schools, I hope single-sex schools are still available in some form for those students who feel it is the best option for them.

  • Emily Smith

    I went to an all girls school ( and absolutely loved it. I felt that gender stereotypes were broken. There were all the same ‘roles’, jocks, studios types, cheerleader types e.t.c. except they were ALL filled with women. We got a powerful education, achieving top scores in the country, in a nation where women’s suffrage was first achieved. The women’s perspective was always taken into account, and we were taught to be the business women, scientists, and leaders of the future. I loved my single sex education. It was only when I attended a co-ed school for the first time that I truly experienced the pressure to fit gender role.

  • Robin

    Wow, I always considered that segregating the sexes in k-12 could be a good idea, but I didn’t realize they changed what material, how they taught it, and even the physical structure of the classroom based on sex! Dimly lit rooms for the girls? C’mon! Thanks for this post.

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I’m really glad to see the Feministing editors taking a stand against sex-segregation, along with the ACLU and the current understanding of our best social scientists. Segregation and separate-but-equal are clearly very seductive ideas, judging by how even the other feminist commenters here in this thread are drawn to them. We haven’t even started, in this thread, talking about the clear threats sex-segregated education poses to trans people or people outside the gender binary, that are so commonly completely ignored.

    Thanks Lori!

  • Helen

    ‘Warm and dimly lit’ is an accurate description of my maths and biology classes. Now, I found biology easy so if I fell asleep in class it wasn’t hard to catch up at home, but having always had difficulty with maths I ended up failing by a small margin in my final year due to the fact I could barely keep my eyes open in an environment not wholly dissimilar to my bedroom and understand what the teacher was saying – and without his guidance the textbooks were meaningless.
    I’m sure that all the boys love learning when others are ‘running about’ to ‘let off steam’, too.

  • Mike Burke

    I’m of two minds about this. I attended an all-male college, Virginia Military Institute, 1969-73. I liked the all-male environment because we had relatively few distractions–we had a pretty restrictive social life, especially the first year or two. It worked for me. At the same time, I agree that gender sterotyping is also part of the deal–I dated women who went to women’s colleges, and we both had, I suppose, “issues” with how we viewed each other. I met my wife in the Army–she was my dentist–and I would say we would never have gotten along had I not been out of college for six years and in a gender-integrated Army. I had to grow up,in other words. I bet the same will be true for many of the students in these studies. I don’t think single-sex classes or schools are lifetime predictors of behavior, and I do think that for some people a single-sex classroom can be very helpful. We have to remember that it’s just a classroom, not a vocation.

  • JSF

    The problem is not the separation but how it is being used. I lived overseas in a country where all children were separated until college. The girls did much better in school than the boys and are now a clear majority in college — so much so that is a concern.

    It was not that gender roles were not an issue but that they needed everyone to do as well as possible in order to build up the country. Kids were assigned to college courses based on abilities and capabilities, even when they wanted to do something different and perhaps easier. But letting the girls develop away from the boys allowed them to concentrate on studies and not on being popular and attractive.

  • thecommonwoman

    also, this is a complete derail, what’s going on with commenting on this site? i commented on this article on the 30th and it was days before my comment was released from moderation. does feministing still have someone dedicated primarily to moderation? i’ve noticed that most posts these days have 0-3 comments on them usually whereas a few years ago there were zillions. Obviously a few years ago the site was also in desperate need of moderation, but surely there’s a happy medium in between where we can weed out vitriol and yet still have a conversation?