Are Girls’ Schools Based on Pseudoscience?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 31 2011 12:39 PM

The Feminist Case Against Single-Sex Schools

No, the studies don’t show that girls’ schools are better for girls. But they’re sure great at perpetuating sexist attitudes.

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Which brings us to the third line of evidence supporting coeducation: research suggesting that single-sex schooling facilitates social stereotypes and prejudice in children. Just as racial segregation enhances racist attitudes among children, gender segregation reinforces sexist attitudes and the view that males and females have categorically different types of intellects. In dozens of studies, we have found that when teachers use group characteristics—whether familiar (“boys and girls”) or arbitrary (T-shirt color)—to label students, children develop stereotypes and biases against the “other” group. By separating the genders into different classrooms, educators lead children to view males and females as deeply different, and reinforce sexism in the culture at large.

On the flip side, other research suggests that coeducation offers boys and girls the chance to learn positive skills from each other. Mixed-sex groupings tend to buffer the bullying that often occurs in same-sex groups of adolescents. Studies of siblings, meanwhile, have found that girls with older brothers tend to be more interested in sports than girls with sisters, whereas boys with twin sisters demonstrate better verbal skills than boys with twin brothers.

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Not surprisingly, our Science paper has been triggering some unhappy responses. But one group of critics stands out from our perspective: devoted feminists who believe that single-sex education is uniquely beneficial to girls’ development and who have responded to the article with stories of their own nurturing and empowering experiences at single-sex schools and colleges. We share these feminists’ desire to see every girl and woman respected and supported by her teachers and classroom peers—both as an individual and as a female. We hope to convince these critics of two final points.

First, feminists need to redouble our efforts to require gender egalitarian environments in our coeducational schools. Evidence suggests that even elementary school-age girls can learn to successfully advocate feminist goals and make allies and advocates of male peers. Whereas single-sex schools model the idea that gender exclusion is the answer to sexism, coeducational schools model the notion that the sexes must work together warmly and supportively. By working for these conditions, feminists can do more to support both girls and boys than by advocating single-sex schooling.

Second, feminists who favor girls’ schools have fallen for the myth that parents and educators can reliably identify particular girls who will benefit from an all-girls’ environment. Most proponents of single-sex schooling readily admit that it is not suitable for all, but they nonetheless believe it should be a choice for a minority of girls (and boys). What “type” of girl is that? There are vague suggestions: girls with low self-confidence who won’t compete with boys; girls with strong libidos who are distracted by boys; girls with low body satisfaction who are embarrassed to be near boys; girls who strongly dislike boys. But none of these beliefs is backed by research, and in fact, still other research tells us that the girls who are successful in single-sex settings are the same ones who would be successful in coeducational classrooms.

In any other situation, when schools offer special educational environments, it is because some diagnostic test is used to identify students (those with dyslexia, say) requiring special learning conditions. But in the absence of such measures, the decision to send a girl to an all girls’ school rests solely on parents’ judgment and is often based on precisely the kind of stereotyping they profess to be protecting their daughters from.

Instead of letting gender exclusion and essentialist attitudes back into schools, we believe feminists should celebrate girls’ dramatic educational achievements in the 40 years since Title IX became law. Hillary Clinton helped reopen the doors to single-sex public education by supporting the Deptartment of Education’s 2006 relaxed regulations of Title IX. We don’t doubt that she did, as she has said, “find her voice” as an undergraduate at Wellesley in the 1960s. But who’s to say that, if she’d gone to Stanford (like Chelsea), she would not have been equally empowered?

Rebecca Bigler is a professor of psychology and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Lise Eliot is a neuroscience professor at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University.

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