Could single-sex education actually help with gender bias?
We tend to think of single-sex education as being an antiquated notion, but maybe it could solve some of our more contemporary issues.
Single-sex education remains a contentious topic. Arguments in favour range from girls and boys having different learning requirements, to the opposite sex being too distracting. On the other side, it is argued that single-sex schools are outdated and that they fail to prepare students for real life. They don’t allow children to develop mixed-sex social skills, which hinders them in later life. In the last four decades, there has been a tendency towards the latter school of thought. This is reflected by that the fact that during this period in the UK, single-sex schools have dropped from 2500 to just 400.
But although they may be archaic in many ways, could they help to overcome gender bias? In a world where in-built stereotypes encourage males and females to follow different school and career paths, has single-sex education been the answer all along? If we remove the opportunity for gender division in school, do we also remove gender bias as an obstacle to learning?
How singe-sex education can remove gender bias
The extent of the impact of single-sex education on gender bias seems inconclusive. Despite much research on single-sex education, it has had either mixed results or an alternative focus. However, in the following three areas, it seems we can’t deny that single-sex education has at least some impact.
1. Subject choices
The choice of subjects is still an area in which we see a high gender divide. In 2019, UK research from the Department of Education showed that girls are still much less likely to either choose STEM subjects at A-level, or to consider these their favourite. With such an ingrained view that subjects like science are more suited to males, it seems inevitable that girls could feel discouraged from taking them in mixed-schools. This could be for many reasons, such as fear of not performing as well as their peers. Alternatively, they might feel that the subject isn’t really for them, or they could lack encouragement from teachers and parents.
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Looking at single-sex schools, is the impact of gender bias therefore reduced? In girls’ schools, if there are no boys to compete against or to naturally assume certain roles, surely that levels the playing field, making it more open for studying a range of subjects. Ofsted Chief, Amanda Spielman, agrees. She professes that single-sex education encourages girls to pursue “typically male subjects”. One study showed that girls are nearly two and a half times more likely to study physics at A-level at an all-girls school than a mixed school. In the same vein, it showed evidence for boys taking on more arts and drama in all-boys schools.
I spoke to an Ex-Bristol student, who went to an all-girls secondary school. She studied Maths, Economics, English and French and went on to study Economics at University.
“I never thought anything gender related about the subjects I studied […] I did consider doing physics but ultimately didn’t because I did Economics instead”.
It seems then that some do find that single-sex education allows for more freedom in subject choices. In particular, it removes expectations and allows people to follow their interests.
“Guys yell out the answer and want to give the answers. They take up a lot of attention.”
These were the thoughts of a girl interviewed in a girls-only classroom back in 2002.
The stereotype of quiet, well-behaved girls and loud, boisterous boys still exists today. Whether or not that is always the case, this true or perceived assumption is likely to infiltrate classroom dynamics. It can make girls feel less confident to shout out answers or contribute. This is particularly seen in a classroom where there is heavy weighting towards males, or where males are assumed to be more talented.
Therefore, do single-sex schools allow girls to be more confident in the classroom?
A study revealed that single-sex classes allowed females a higher sense of ownership. Female students also reported more confidence in their maths skills as a consequence of attending the single-sex maths classes.
So single-sex education is likely to allow for higher levels of female confidence. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, would agree, claiming her single-sex schooling was “empowering”.
3. Gender Stereotypes
Assuming girls and boys have different characteristics, qualities and interests can be dangerous when it comes to education. It can lead to teachers subtly encouraging girls and boys in different ways and different subjects. It may also make some student think they will be better or worse at certain things, and make some subjects seem more appealing or fitting.
A 3Plus contact from Germany, who is now professor of engineering in the Netherlands, told us that in her all-girls school, subject choice wasn’t impacted by gender stereotypes. When she went to university her (male) physics professor asked her if she had the wrong class; “This is physics you know…” She was one of a handful of women in the room with a very unwelcoming atmosphere. She eventually dropped the class and studied on her own.
Gender roles regarding personal relationships can also have an effect in the classroom. Evidence suggests that concerns for dating can dissuade girls from traditionally male-dominated subjects. Girls might not want to appear an academic threat to boys, who may reject them as sexual partners. Instead, they prefer to take feminine subjects that will make them more appealing. Although (hopefully) heading towards becoming an outdated notion, it does seem the stereotype of the “ditzy female” can have an influence. It can affect subject choices, effort in class and discouragement from competing academically.
So there you have it, three areas where single-sex education might actually help to remove gender bias. Splitting up genders doesn’t solve the deeper issues of gender bias in society, the media, the home or the workplace. However, for now it could help those in single-sex education to escape issues of gender bias in schools. And if we can identify these problem areas, the next step is to work on other ways to eliminate them in mixed schools too.
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