Do All Girls High Schools Create Stronger Women?

This question is in the top 10 that I get asked when I tell someone I work in education equity. Some assume that I must support all girls high schools as the answer for increasing women in non-traditional fields for a variety of reasons including that girls won't be distracted by the boys, without boys there is no harassment (obviously stated by a man or a woman who forgot what high school was like!), or whipping out the old adage that girls just do better in math & science (my bread & butter) in an all girls classroom.

Simply put, no. I don't.

There are valid reasons to send your child to a single-sex school and I admit to daydreaming about having gone to Smith. But that is more about Smith not the all women thing. A few weeks ago on the DC Metro Moms Blog (sister to the Chicago Moms Blog where I contribute), KC mused about what she would be like if she had gone to an all-girls school and wonders if the only way her daughter will come out strong is to send her to an all-girls school. As fate would have it an email popped into my inbox a few days later about a new study out. On single sex schools! The Goddess does love me.

KC is correct when she notes that:
Some studies have shown that girls attending all-girls schools do develop more confidence in themselves as students and are more likely to continue on in fields like math and science. They seem to do better on standardized exams across the board, independent on baseline level of achievement and socioeconomic status. When observing co-ed classrooms, boys often dominate discussion while girls are at times victims of subtle sexism. While both boys and girls seem to do better academically in same-sex schools, this difference is greatest for girls.
My usual response is that a lot of the effects of an all-girls classroom is from the smaller class size. In "University Students from Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools," Karpiak et. al, surveyed current students at the University of Scranton about their majors, high school experience, and attitudes towards gender roles. They also looked at historical data on students from both groups (SSHS & CoEdHS) about their declared major freshman year and their actual degree major.

The results?
In sum, students from single-sex high schools entered college less concentrated in majors traditional for their gender and more likely to have declared a gender-neutral major than those from coeducational high schools. However, by graduation, the advantage for women from single-sex high schools had disappeared. In contrast, men from single-sex high schools were significantly more likely than those from coeducational schools to hold gender-neutral majors at graduation.
Secondary school is time-limited. In order to translate into differences in the college experience and the labor market, the single-sex high school's moratorium from gender socialization must result in changes that can withstand the social realities of a world populated by both women and men.
Thus in order for the real increase in strength girls obtain in their all-girls high schools, society as a whole must also change or else they slide backwards. Of course by society we also mean that the men of the world must become more egalitarian. But what if they are off in all-boys high schools? Are they becoming more egalitarian as one might assume from their higher rates of enrolling in non-traditional male majors?
It appears that something about the single-sex setting—perhaps direct sexism (Lee el all., 1994), exacerbation of "macho male cultures" in schools (Jackson, 2002), and/or lack of daily exposure to competent female peers in the high school classroom—corresponds with less egalitarian attitudes in males. Our results suggest that, at least for men, holding more flexible ideas about possible careers for one's gender does not necessarily translate into broader notions of egalitarianism.
So while our girls are off getting all Buffy-ified, knowing who Alice Paul is, and finding their voice, our boys might be off learning that Harriet Nelson is the ideal mate. When the two meet in college or even later in the workforce, I doubt this will lead to ideal dating situations much less work environments. It really is sad to think that any benefits that girls gain in not having boys in the classroom is lost because the boys don't have girls in their classrooms. Even when we're making boys more egalitarian, we're kinda losing!

Of course the study team acknowledges that this study needs to be done with a much larger and more diverse sample, but it really is one of the first to look at the lasting effects of going to a single-sex high school. And in the end do we want our daughters to enter as engineering majors or become engineers?

To KC I say, there are many strong women who have emerged from co-ed public schools. Your daughter can be one of them. But that is a decision for her and the family to make. Heck, those of us who went to a co-ed school might be stronger because we survived.

Crossposted at Chicago Moms Blog

Psychology of Women Quarterly 31 (3), 282–289.

Technorati tags: feminism, single sex schools, high school, girls, education, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Karpiak, University of Scranton