Did My All-Girls Education Make Me Sexist Against Women In My Office?

According to a new study from the journal Science, attending a single-sex school is more likely to make men and women more sexist. “There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism,” the authors write, adding: “The strongest argument against single-sex education is that it reduces boys’ and girls’ opportunities to work together in a supervised, purposeful environment.”

There is definitely research that supports the opposite argument that single-sex education does in fact improve academic performance. For example, one 2009 British study performed on the analysis of the GCSE scores of more than 700,000 girls taught in the state sector concludes that those at girls’ schools consistently made more progress than those in co-ed schools. But the question that a single-sex education could feed a more sexist attitude in both sexes is interesting.

Boys who spend more time in each others’ company are more likely to become aggressive and develop behavioral problems, while isolating girls can lead them to accept gender stereotypes, the study said. Research conducted last year showed that after two weeks of teachers lining children up by gender and asking them to post their work on different bulletin boards in the classroom, boys and girls began to have more stereotyped attitudes towards one another and play less with pupils of the opposite sex.

After reaching out to women who attended all-girls schools at both the elementary, high school and college levels I got a lot of resounding “Absolutely not!”s. All-girls schools promote female empowerment, they said. But the question wasn’t whether all-girls schools helped empowerment it is whether they encourage sexist stereo-types. One woman, who chose to remain anonymous, attended an all-girls private school from kindergarten through high school graduation.

“I think it can encourage a bit of a sexist attitude. In a lot of these schools you are told a lot that there are subjects boys excel at, like science and math, so you are going to work at being better than that so you can beat them. So you were being told stereotypes, that were probably true, and then being encouraged to work as hard as you could to beat them. I think when I entered the work force I did have certain ideas about what men and women are good at but I know I have been taught to work a certain way and I probably do look at other women in my office and think they weren’t trained to think like me. They are perfectly smart but I wonder if they don’t know that they should be working really hard to compensate for female stereotypes to look better and try to outdo our male colleagues.”

Tori Harris, who works in marketing for one of the world’s largest record labels, said:

Throughout my high school years in an all-girl’s school (of which I have only the warmest memories) I would agree that I developed some very sexist views, but not in the way you think.

I was taught that in order to reach my full potential that I must suppress my femininity. That I must shut off the part of me that desires to be beautiful, that desires to raise children and be provided for. That my fertility is a disease to be avoided – and how lucky I am to live in the modern world of drugs and contraceptives because starting a family would ruin any career prospects, and becoming a full-time mother would absolutely be a waste of all of my education and ability.  Being a career woman in the man’s world was the goal, and I was taught that the answer to being accepted by men was to become more like a man.

If anything, I want permission to be feminine. I want the permission to choose a traditional gender role without the guilt that I am letting all women of the world down for not trying to rule the world. I want someone to tell me that being a woman and being feminine is OK.

All girls education may make some women sexist towards other women in their office as well as women who aren’t working because they were constantly told you have to do something amazing with your career to help women. Liz Harter attended a single-sex high school in Cincinnati and followed it up with an education at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

There was never any thought that women could only do certain careers. In fact, it’s probably the opposite sexist response that while the world needs housewives, we often pause for a beat when someone tells us they aren’t using their degree in a career outside of the house after they get married or have children shortly after graduation. It’s not wrong, but it’s different for women graduating from St.Mary’s [a single-sex college].

Some women who attended all girls schools also felt that by being isolated from men and boys growing up they were coming out of these institutions with a skewed version of the politics of the workforce. Gretchen Krueger attended Simmons College in the late 1980s:

I transferred because I thought attending an all girls college limited my experiences in the classroom. As a Political Science major hearing points of view from only women didn’t complete the picture for me. I felt I was missing out on what males might think on various topics. There was definitely an air of sexism in the halls of the college.

We were supposed to be learning about the world but we didn’t have the male perspective. With men being in 90% of the leadership positions I think it is tough for women to go into work with no other perspective than the woman’s.

But on the other hand even if these women may have sexist views towards their female colleagues they are also the ones being taught to look differently at a woman’s place in the world which is not a bad thing. Lynn Kiaer attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart (generally known as 91st Street) in New York City:

The fact that I earned a PhD in Mathematics suggests that my experiences there did not steer me into a traditionally female role, professionally. I married after college, had three children, divorced when the oldest was in junior high, was a single parent for several years (the last year and a half of my PhD program, and another five or six years afterwards), and remarried when my oldest was in college. My retired husband does the cooking; I am the breadwinner for our household. So, to the extent that 91st Street shaped my view of a woman’s place in the world, I would have to say that I was not molded into a traditional role.

 

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