Single-sex versus co-ed? Which is better for women?

As the STEM fields continue to observe a shortage of women in their fields, and as young girls remain reluctant to take up these subjects, education policy makers have been considering various solutions to level the playing field. One of the suggestions put forward by some educators has been the separation of classes into single-sex units. This move has elicited mixed reactions with various reasons being given for or against it. DiscovHER breaks down the issue in this article.

 In 2015, a study carried out by students from the Harvard Kennedy School which was based on an experiment by a Switzerland school in which students were split into single-sex classes, reported a few interesting findings. In math classes, single-sex classes had positive benefits for female students. These included getting higher grades than girls in co-ed classes, and attributing their performance to their own efforts, rather than to luck or talent. These improvements were observed regardless of teacher gender or the students’ prior abilities. In contrast to this, the study found no differences in the female students’ performance in languages based on the class composition.


The study seems to prove that single-sex education is more beneficial to girls than co-ed systems. Indeed, proponents of this type of student separation have several arguments on their side. One of these is the removal of stereotype threat, a phenomenon which can be defined as the generalization of a certain group of people as being bad at something, which in turn makes individual members of the said group worse at doing the action in question than those who aren’t exposed to that stereotype. For instance, when women are generalized as being bad at math, individual women who are exposed to this stereotype, regardless of their capability, will perform worse than those who are not.


In addition, proponents also suggest that being in an all-female learning environment enables women to speak up and contribute more to their classes, without fear of ridicule or dismissal by their male counterparts. As certain scientists declare, these contributions will build a confidence that will serve them well in their careers. This is especially critical when we think of the many women who did not make it into scientific annals because they were spoken over or because male colleagues took credit for their hard work.


On the other hand, opponents of single-sex systems also make points that are contextually relevant. One of these issues is the fact that in many cases, especially as the system catches on as a trend, few educators do a deep dive into what it really entails, and therefore end up implementing a system that exacerbates the existing gender-based stereotypes. In one article by Forbes, an example is given of a public school which has created a system of mixed co-ed and single-sex classes. While on the outside the system seems to be working, with a notable rise in grades in single-sex classes, the way this is implemented leaves one surprised. The teaching approaches lean on antiquated stereotypes about gender and biological differences between male and female behavior, such as the assumption that boys only respond to authority, while girls are less boisterous. As one researcher states in the same article, it’s not enough to change the system, mentalities also must change.


In any case, as proven by many testimonials and studies, the solution for getting more women is not one-dimensional, and the change needed involves the overhaul of many things, systems and people alike.


Does being in a single-sex system work better for women’s learning outcomes in STEM-related subjects? Let us know what you think @4womeninscience

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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