Freedom to Dare: Single-Sex Education for Girls

by Varda Epstein

Behind every confident, successful woman is the young girl who preceded her, leading the way into womanhood. This notion has led educators to examine what sort of educational environment will produce women who are unafraid to make the most of their talents and abilities. One interesting experiment toward that goal is found in the institution of single-sex education for girls.

In the all-girls classroom, students have a better shot at exploring subjects thought of as strictly masculine, for instance computer science, woodworking, and physics. Whenever and wherever girls are afforded the opportunity to give such subjects a try, they embrace them with enthusiasm. This has been demonstrated in countries and cultures as diverse as, for instance, Thailand, Kenya, the UK, the United States, and Australia.

When such options are offered in the traditional, mixed-gender classroom however, girls shy away from them. One educator, Dr. Leonard Sax, of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), wrote about this phenomenon in his book, Why Gender Matters. Sax tells the story of Clear Water Academy, located in Calgary Alberta. The prestigious private school started out coed but in the fall of 2003, the administration decided to divide the school into two separate single-sex academies.

The music director for the school, Andrew Bolen, explained to Dr. Sax that throughout the years Clear Water was coed all the trumpet-players had been boys, while all the flautists were girls. Once the school split off into two entities, Bolen was forced to explain to the girls that it wasn’t possible to have a band consisting of 12 flutes but no trumpets. Therefore, he told them, some of them would have to learn trumpet.

To his surprise, there was no dearth of volunteers, and the girls proved terrific trumpeters. Bolen realized that had the school retained its formerly coed status, none of the girls would have ever chosen to learn trumpet.

Gender Intensification

This story helps illustrate a phenomenon developmental psychologists refer to as “gender intensification.” In gender intensification, girls and boys remain ever mindful of what society deems appropriate behavior for the individual sexes while they subsist in a mixed gender environment. That makes gender intensification a given in the coed school format. Ergo, there are some unintended consequences to the traditional, mixed-sex public school environment for both girls and boys, regardless of the enlightenment of or quality of their educators.

Exacerbating this issue is the nature of child and teen subcultures: arguably the most sexist of all human sectors. Children and teens, especially those subject to the gender intensification of the coed educational system know (or think they do) that trumpets for boys. The same could be said of woodworking while art history is decidedly feminine.

The pervasiveness of gender intensification paints a girl’s world pink, and a boy’s, blue. It won’t matter if grownups attempt to convince them otherwise. Gender intensification in the coeducational classroom can’t be countered with verbal suasion. Take those girls and boys away from each other, however, and see what happens: in the single-sex classroom, it’s cool to play the trumpet.

Sports are a perfect example of how single-sex education can break down the barriers of gender intensification. Numerous studies have shown that more girls in single-sex middle and high schools will take part in competitive sports than their counterparts attending coeducational schools. The single-sex classroom is devoid of gender stereotypes. Gender separation does away with the need to compartmentalize everyone according to gender.

That’s why camps underwritten by the car donation charity Kars for Kids are kept gender separate by intention. In the single-sex educational environment, it is no longer “weird” for a girl to compete or for a boy to collaborate with his peers. A girl can do anything and be anything she wants once she is freed from the pressures of gender intensification.

Lost Labels

Experts have attempted to explain the phenomenon of why girls in single-sex schools become willing to explore “male” subjects. It comes down to freedom. In the single-sex environment, a girl has the freedom to dare; to try things that would otherwise have been labeled “male.” Subjects simply lose their gender labels in the single-sex environment.

Imagine the girl in a coed school who has to choose between advanced French class and computer-programming. She visits both classes. The French class feels like going home—she’s been studying French for years now. But the computer-programming class is comprised of 15 boys and just two girls. The boys in the class try to out-shout their neighbors to brag about their levels of computer-programming proficiency. The scenario is daunting, to say the least. Advanced French is going to win, hands down, just about every time.

What teenager will choose to risk embarrassment doing something unfamiliar, when presented with the chance to do something she knows she can do well? And to be one of three girls in a class of 15 boys? Fuhgeddaboudit. Advanced French it will be.

Now imagine having the opportunity to check out the computer-programming class in an all-girls’ school. Wow. What a difference. There are other girls without much background in programming, and lo and behold, they’re not just keeping their heads above water, they’re doing great. A girl monitoring that class might very well come away with a yearning to give computer-programming a try.

It boils down to this: girls in the single-sex school will explore non-traditional subjects more often. In this environment, they have a greater diversity of role models among their own sex. In such a setting, the brainiest computer genius is a girl, the president of the student council is a girl, the best hockey player is a girl, and the person who consistently gets the highest scores in math is always going to be a girl.

At an all-girl’s school, the message comes through loud and clear: girls have every right to excel in sports and math. They can even become computer geeks.  The sky’s the limit and that’s as it should be. (Race you down the hall to physics class?)

Varda Epstein is a mother to four daughters and a communications writer at Kars4Kids, an American non-profit national car donation organization based in Lakewood, New Jersey which donates proceeds to Jewish children and their families through the funding of Oorah, a national non-profit organization.