I spent 12 years in an all girls’ school. Gender did not seem to be a factor of consideration for a very long time, and I thought - still think - that it was a blessing. Growing up in an all girls’ school provided me a safe space for me to define what I want to do, based on my merit and merit alone. It was only when I stepped into university that I started seeing gender, and seeing gender inequality. It plays out in everything from how my male friends were more career-oriented than myself, to the natural confidence that they seemed to possess.
But my 12 years of single sex education has protected me from the sexism - and if I could use the word, patriarchy - of the wider society. Before ‘releasing’ me to the wider world, my teachers and peers have helped me to become a strong woman, and that when confronted with biases and stereotypes as a result of my gender, I was in a better place to cope with them. I don’t think I would have coped with them when I confronted them at the beginning of my puberty.
So, from a very personal experience, I believe that single sex education is a great tool to empower young women and girls. But I understand that it is a contentious issue among educators, and evidence points us in many directions. BBC reports on a study in 2016 that noted girls at single-sex state schools in England get better academic results than those in mixed schools - and that the advantage remains even when other factors such as social background are held constant. Contrary to this conclusion, a US study in 2014 analysed 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students globally and it found that single-sex education does not educate girls and boys any better than coed schools. So where does this leave us?
It may be helpful to deconstruct what single-sex education meant for me. First, it meant that I was encouraged to take up initiatives that interest me, and that I am good at. There is no such thing as ‘this is not for a girl’; and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects were particularly encouraged. In the UK, 23% of girls in the UK feel STEM subjects are geared towards boys, partly contributing to the gender gap in STEM that we see. This is especially important in education, especially primary school, because gender stereotypes form by age 10, according to a global study reported by the Time Magazine.
Second, it meant questioning the gender bias in our curriculum. My history teacher, in our first history class, has called to our attention the construction of the word, history - his-story, that it’s always been written by men. In English Literature - taught by a man - we read extensively female writers to ensure that there is an equality of representation; and we discussed the role of women in Shakespearean times versus in our modern contexts.
Finally, it meant having strong female role models. I see them as sports coaches, as teachers, as mothers - any possible role that you can imagine. It was only when I went to university and started immersing myself in the gender equality movement, that I realised these role models were not present for many women and girls across the world. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
I think there will always be promoters and detractors of single sex education, but it is not helpful for us to move forward - and we need more solutions urgently. The study quoted in the Time Magazine, interviewed 450 adolescents and their parents, and they found that children at a a very early age—from the most conservative to the most liberal societies—quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent.
As a starting point, we could ask ourselves if our schools are doing three things: taking away the gendered nature of school subjects; enabling students to question gender bias in curriculum; and enabling relatable role models for students to look up to.