By GIRLWITHABOOK intern, Rosie Vita
All-girls’ schools and women’s colleges have been the center of debate since their founding. Single-sex, or single-gender education, where male and female students are separated for instruction, has existed for hundreds of years. Today, with the commonness of co-ed schools and universities, single-sex schools are often debated with fierce supporters and opponents. Why, then, are single-sex education systems gaining popularity, and what are the potential benefits to young girls and women?
To gain more insight, I reached out to Shannon Caietti, a graduate of an all-girls’ Catholic high school and current student at the College of William & Mary. I also spoke with Anna Valentine, who attended Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts and one of the Seven Sisters. Both women have experience attending co-ed and single-sex schools, as Shannon currently attends a co-ed university, and Anna attended co-ed schools up until Smith and a co-ed medical school.
One of my first questions is why they chose to attend a single-sex school in the first place. According to Anna, “The campus was full of confident, smart, driven women who all seemed to have a different energy about them than I’d noticed at any of the co-ed colleges I’d visited.”* Her affirmation of the positive role models young women can find within women’s schools and colleges is one of the benefits proponents of the system celebrate. Similarly, Shannon said the students she witnessed influenced her choice. “I remember touring the school and observing a class where girls were speaking up, offering insight, and unapologetically being themselves in the classroom,” she said. Both women emphasized the positive effect of seeing their female peers actively engaging in the classroom as reasons they chose their single-sex schools, and a reason that all-girls’ schools are touted as empowering to women.
Additionally, supporters argue that without males in the classroom, the needs of female students are more directly met. Studies conducted by the American Association of University Women show that in co-ed classrooms, girls are far less likely to participate in classroom discussions than their male counterparts, and that African-American girls are even less likely than their white classmates to participate, or even be called on. “I do think that being surrounded by so many incredible young women in such a nurturing academic environment enhanced that drive in me in a way it wouldn’t have been at a co-ed school,” said Anna. “I think a real benefit of an all-girls school or women’s college is creating an environment where subconscious institutionalized sexism is largely taken out of the picture. I think a lot of well-meaning professors and administrators (especially male) tend to favor men in co-ed environments because it’s what our American culture teaches, not because they really value men more than women. When you enter an environment where professors have chosen to teach at a single-sex school, there’s an extra level of awareness and encouragement of young women that’s sometimes missing from co-ed schools. Having studied in a STEM field (I have a BA in Chemistry), I can be sure that this was even more important for my educational trajectory.”*
Beyond the classroom, what are the benefits of single-sex education? Some critics argue that educating students with only their own sex isn’t preparing them for the real world, where men and women must work together. Anna disagrees; “If you educate a young woman on a campus where every leadership position is held by a woman, every academic award is received by a woman, every professor is there because they value educating women – that young woman will enter the ‘real world’ never questioning if a job or other position is one she can or should have, because the example has been set that women can do anything.”* In the same note, Shannon also said that, “Everywhere I looked whether it was teachers, student government, administration, or sports nearly every position of leadership was held by a woman. This is something you won’t get just anywhere. There’s something powerful in seeing a woman in a position of authority especially for young high school women.” Both women transitioned to other co-ed institutions after their time spent at their single-sex schools, which Shannon claims was not only easy for her, but that she felt particularly empowered to do so thanks to her all-girls’ education.
It’s safe to say that at least according to these two former students of the single-sex track; all-women’s schools and universities have merit. Despite conflicting evidence found in studies for quantifiable evidence on the benefits, the confidence and real-world skills acquired at these institutions are immeasurable. One benefit that Anna pointed out to me is the progressive thinking and diverse make-up of the student body and administration. “The Seven Sisters, for example, (of which Smith College is one) were founded as sister schools to the Ivy League universities at a time when women weren’t provided the same educational opportunities as men. This progressive thought has continued on women’s college campuses today such that these schools see much more racial and economic diversity than their co-ed counterparts, which I think is an important part of the educational experience.”* In fact, women’s colleges have some of the highest rates of students of color in the country, and outrank most co-ed schools.
And at the end of the day, it’s almost always a choice, and one that both of my interview subjects recommend potential students consider. Anna recommends that every female high school student consider a women’s college in their college search. Shannon also recommends all-girls’ high schools, and notes the positive impact it’s had on her college career. “It allowed me to enter college knowing what I wanted to get out of it and to not be afraid to be unapologetically myself no matter the situation…I entered my first college class as a freshman willing and ready to participate and learn and I can thank my all-girls school for that confidence,” she said. Despite the ongoing debates, all-girls’ schools and women’s colleges foster environments for empowered and engaged students to learn and grow, something that every educational institution strives to accomplish. With results like these, it’s no wonder that these schools continue to be popular and influential today.
*Note from Anna: In answering these questions, I’ve opted to use the pronouns she/her and speak of students at women’s colleges as female. This was merely due to my laziness and ease of flow for me linguistically in responding, for which I apologize. I am fully aware of and also value the presence of my trans, genderqueer, and other differently gendered classmates at my women’s college who added to my experience there.
Sources: How Schools Shortchange Girls. N.p.: AAUW, 1992. American Association University of Women. Web. <http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/how-schools-shortchange-girls-executive-summary.pdf>.
Eum, Jennifer. "Surprise: The Colleges That Aren't Mostly White Are Mostly Women." Forbes. 29 Mar. 2016: n. pag. Forbes. Web. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennifereum/2016/03/29/surprise-the-colleges-that-arent-mostly-white-are-mostly-women/#6d682499d8c8>.