The case for women’s colleges at university

31 July 2015

Dr Amanda Bell, Principal of The Women’s College at the University of Sydney, has strongly argued the case for women’s colleges in Women’s Agenda this week: 

Recently, the case against single-sex schools has been re-ignited with The Armidale School announcing it would become coeducational. While a number of other independent boys’ schools have also moved to coeducation in the past, it would seem their motives have been more about economic imperatives and the competition to maintain and grow enrolments, rather than a desire to improve educational outcomes for the girls they look to enrol. A cynical view might suggest that they do see the benefits of coeducation for their boys.

Exponents of coeducation who tout it as a superior model to an “unnatural” single-sex environment often argue, perhaps flippantly, that our world is a coed environment shared by both men and women, and that the only societal segregation of sexes occurs in lavatories, prisons, monasteries and some schools and colleges. However, they are merely observing that we coexist. Unfortunately, they also believe that a coed environment is synonymous with coequal. Susan Pinker, in her book The Sexual Paradox, argues that while women need to be treated as equal to men, they are not identical to men. Therefore, a case for separate, specialised approaches and programs for women—and indeed men—in education and the work-force is not unjustified.

Like single-sex girls’ schools, there is a case for single-sex women’s colleges at a tertiary level. For aspirational girls entering university, the strong demand for places at a women’s residential college suggests that choice is still important, just like choice in types of schools. When interviewing potential students for The Women’s College within the University of Sydney, the key reasons candidates offer for applying are the sense of community, a desire to be part of the sisterhood network, open access to leadership opportunities (all taken by women) and the collective approach to academic work. Importantly, applications are received from women at both coed and single sex schools.

Louisa Macdonald, the first principal of The Women’s College, noted the collective support and solidarity a women-only environment promoted—this is no different a century later. When current Women’s College students talk about the benefits of their college to prospective residents they consistently cite the sense of shared community and open access to opportunities—especially leadership; they deeply value college connections to leading female mentors and access to the alumnae professional networks. They enjoy the friendships and value of studying together.

In spite of recent articles to the contrary, the Alliance of Girls Schools of Australasia maintains that girls do better in single sex classes at school. They are more confident in discussion, select more challenging subjects, take more risks with their learning, are more competitive and achieve higher comparable grades than girls in coeducational schools. Whether the research is disputed or not, the choice for girls—and indeed boys—to live and learn in a single-sex environment is equally important as for those who wish to choose a coed environment.

For young women entering the tertiary sector there are demonstrated benefits to single-sex contexts at university. The Daily Mail reported on research at the University of Essex which found that young women perform better at university when taught in single-sex classes: “Dr Patrick Nolen and Professor Alison Booth divided 800 first-year undergraduates into three groups for introductory courses in economics. At the end of the year, the average member of the girls-only group did 7.5 per cent better on her exams than those in the other groups.”

This research has implications for women undertaking university study and for tertiary residential colleges. If, as Nolen and Booth found, young women do better academically in single-sex environments in the tertiary context, then it could be advantageous for them to think strategically about their university tutorial compositions, group work dynamics and residential college designations to maximise their potential outcomes.

subsequent study investigating positive benefits of single-sex education in a coeducational university environment found that in addition to academic benefits, there was a reduction in stereotype threat. In relation to confidence and achievement, there is evidence to suggest that young women seem to be shying away from healthy competition, except in single-sex environments. Other implications of the study posit that single-sex education for young women can affect economically important preferences. While there might be other advantages to coeducation—not least in terms of socialising women and men and offering mixed-gender networks—their analysis does serve to illustrate the importance of the single-sex environment in affecting real economic outcomes for women through behavioural responses. For example, the differences in competitive behaviour they observed in young women could well have effects on future pay-negotiation skills and remuneration.

Providing strong female role models and leadership opportunities has been at the core of affirmative action. The message from the 2011 film Miss Representation is that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Young women need visible, positive female role models to encourage aspirational thinking about their future possibilities. Marin Alsop, the acclaimed conductor, has said that in spite of her success the number of female conductors around the world remains depressingly low and she has started a fellowship program to encourage more young women to take-up the career she loves. While Alsop wants to be acknowledged as a great conductor, rather than the first female conductor, she knows she has a responsibility to role model possibilities for the next generation of women.

To aspire to leadership young women need to be inspired to know it is possible. They need to see older women in leadership positions, preferably in careers for which they hold an interest. Young women can believe a leadership option is possible for them if they witness another woman successful in the role and if the female leader’s actions and words resonate with them. They need supportive environments where they can challenge themselves in leadership roles and have the support of those around them. Our young men have many, many male leaders role modelling the possibility for them, but we know from the diversity statistics on boards, in politics and for ASX CEOs for example, that it is not the case for young women. At The Women’s College, a residential college of 280 undergraduate and postgraduate students, there are over 80 leadership opportunities—all for women. The college believes this is tremendous experience and consolidates their developing professional skill set in readiness for future careers.

In a democracy, there should be choice. In schools and colleges, whether government or independent, there is space for both single-sex and coed. There is still a place for girls’ schools and women’s tertiary colleges. Hilary Clinton’s short reflection on her time at Wellesley, one of the leading women’s colleges in the USA, convincingly summarises the case. There should not be the need to disparage one or the other, but rather acknowledge that some contexts are better suited to some individuals than others. Quentin Bryce, former principal of The Women’s College, stated in her 2007 Louisa Macdonald Oration:

My friends, I want you to know the privilege I feel and cherish in having been part of the contemporary evolution of an institution that contributes so profoundly and significantly to the efficacy of university education of young women in this country. An institution that is founded on principles of access, equity, and justice; the rich and sustaining value of a university education; and the special value of a residential college, in which young women can be trained to know [in Miss Macdonald’s words] “what true union means, and to feel the privileges and responsibilities of being members of a corporate body.”