Do Single-Sex Schools Help or Hinder Girls?

Recent claims that all-girls schools set women back in the workplace prompted me to reflect on my own experience.
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Sophie Caldecott
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Recent claims that all-girls schools set women back in the workplace prompted me to reflect on my own experience.

The principal of a British coed high school recently stirred up controversy by claiming that single-sex schools put girls at a disadvantage by negatively impacting their ability to communicate with men in the workplace later in life. In an article for the Independent School Parent magazine, Richard Cairns (principal of Brighton College School) said, “They may [do well academically], but if they cannot meaningfully communicate with male colleagues, they will be at a huge disadvantage.”

As someone who spent nine years at an all-girls school, I couldn’t disagree with him more. Don’t get me wrong, my time in single-sex education wasn't all rosy by any means. If I had to choose one word to describe my social life at an all girls’ school, it would be intense. Teenage girls can be catty and give each other more than a little to be self-conscious about. So no, I don’t think that single-sex education is necessarily the right option for everyone for a whole host of reasons. But to Cairns' main point about women learning to interact with men, I would say my single-sex education had little to no impact in this arena. And while we're on the subject, I think my education actually gave me a huge gift which was that I learned in an environment mostly free from gender biases.

At school surrounded by other girls, we had no concept of which subjects were perceived to be particularly masculine or feminine. The freedom I experienced to develop my interests without preconceptions is backed up by the stats: In the UK (where I grew up), girls who go to single-sex schools are more likely to choose to take physics than girls who go to mixed schools.

We were encouraged to speak up and ask questions, to express any opinion we liked as long as we were prepared to back it up and discuss it with the class. Of course like all teenagers I often felt judged by my "cooler" peers, but that inescapable girl-against-girl competitive energy was generally directed toward doing well in class rather than toward impressing boys. Perhaps for less academically inclined teenagers this would be the opposite of helpful, but for the most part, I value how this atmosphere constantly pushed me to do my best.

Writing for The Pool, fellow all-girls school graduate Caroline O’Donoghue said that she felt like her education gave her the freedom to develop her sense of self in an environment where she was allowed to clown around without feeling eclipsed by a louder boy in the classroom. I have to agree that improvisation in our drama classes felt a lot more weird and uninhibited for the lack of male observation and participation. In the throes of my most awkward teenage phase I’m not sure I would have had the guts to stand up and do mime onstage in a leotard and black leggings, had drama class included boys. I also learned I could stand up and debate in front of a class; I could act and dance and sing onstage. By the time I got to my mixed-sex university and then went on to mixed-sex workplaces, I had developed self-confidence. But if I hadn’t had the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone at that critical time of development, I may not have developed the self-assurance that’s so vital for success in any career.

Research and observation also confirms that girls and boys learn differently, and suggests that they're suited to different teaching styles. Helen Fraser, CEO of the Girl's Day School Trust, noted that "in the classroom, girls tend to prefer cooperative, discussion-based learning, focused on real-world scenarios.” While there are always exceptions, she also says that “on the whole, in a mixed classroom, boys tend to dominate discussions, frequently putting themselves forward as leaders in group activities. Girls, meanwhile, are inclined to hold back. [...] So it’s really only in single-sex environments that girls can take center stage.”

Psychologist Dr. Leonard Sax agrees that gender matters in teaching, pointing out that recent brain studies reveal that “sex differences in the brain are largest between young girls and young boys” (the differences seem to decrease with age). He argues that when teachers aren’t aware of the impact sex differences can have on learning, it can have “the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Conversely,” he writes, “teachers who understand these differences can break down gender stereotypes: they can enable more girls to excel in and to enjoy math and computer science, and they can inspire more boys to get excited about creative writing, poetry, and Spanish language.”

Cairns’ critique of all-girls schools was specifically that women are less able to interact with men at work later in life, but I’ve found the opposite to be true; because I wasn’t aware of supposed male-female roles in the classroom, I don’t have an instinct to be treated—or to treat—anyone differently in a professional situation due to their gender.

Sheryl Sandberg points out that women often end up doing the office housework: “Someone has to take notes, serve on committees and plan meetings—and just as happens with housework at home, that someone is usually a woman.” And then there’s office housework in a more literal sense; a few years ago I worked with a man who would always leave big messes in the kitchen area, and I noticed a lot of the other women in the place would tidy up for him without saying anything. Because this dynamic had never been established for me when I was at school, I just assumed he should—and could—clean up his own mess. It never crossed my mind that it might be something I should do for him.

I believe that all-girls schools (somewhat counter-intuitively, perhaps) actually prepare women well for mixed-work settings. I treasured the opportunity to learn in a space that both acknowledged my unique needs—including my gender—while at the same time protecting me from unfounded notions of what girls can and can’t do. There’s nothing more empowering than a good education, and that is exactly what my all-girls school gave me.

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