To achieve gender equality, we need more single-sex schools

Article by Loren Bridge - Executive Officer
The Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia / 15 November 2018

As published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times, Canberra Times and WA Today. 

The debate over single-sex and co-ed schools is never far from the spotlight. This week it is the lack of choice faced by parents in Sydney’s inner western suburbs where state secondary schools are predominantly single-sex and co-ed options are limited.

Parents rightly want, and should have, a choice when it comes to selecting the school that best meets the needs of their child.

Simply put, every aspect of a girls’ school is tailored to girls and how they learn, without competition and social pressure from boys, and this is enormously empowering for girls.

Principal of Loreto College Marryatville in South Australia, Dr Nicole Archard states “Girls’ schools do more than just teach the curriculum and offer a range of sporting and co-curricular opportunities – all schools do that. What girls’ schools do is purposefully develop girls to understand their gender identity and to shape their self-concept, self-efficacy, and self-confidence so girls develop the knowledge and skills required to reject and overcome the gender stereotypes that attempt to define them”.

There are numerous studies that show unequivocally that students in single-sex schools benefit from a learning environment free from gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and social pressure.

In particular, single-sex schooling offers girls the unparalleled opportunity to hold every leadership position, to play every instrument in a school’s orchestras and bands, to captain every sports team from water polo to rugby. Girls 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 co-educational schools. In addition, girls’ schools play a vital role in promoting a positive body image and healthy mental wellbeing.

Backing this view, a 2016 study from Bristol University found that girls in co-educational schools have lower self-esteem and feel more pressure to be thin than girls in single-sex schools. It was also found that single-sex schools encourage “improved self-esteem, psychological and social wellbeing in adolescent girls”. A 2016 British Parliament inquiry found that girls in co-ed high schools are subjected to daily sexual harassment (including 29 per cent of girls aged 16-18 who experience unwanted sexual touching at school) and are the victims of implicit bias by teachers who steer girls away from ‘hard’ subjects like advanced maths, physics and computer science.

Across the world, initiatives are being introduced to attract more girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in a bid to improve gender balance in these traditionally male-dominated fields; fields that are of significant importance to the global economy.

Research from Monash University (2017) found that girls at single-sex schools were bucking the trend when it comes to STEM participation. They are 85 per cent more likely to take advanced mathematics than girls in co-ed schools, 79 per cent more likely to study chemistry, 68 per cent more likely to take intermediate mathematics, and 47 per cent more likely to study physics.

While the data on academic achievement of girls in single-sex schools is very positive, it is vital to remember that a good education is not solely about academic performance, it’s also about nurturing the development and growth of confident, resilient and inquisitive global citizens. Citizens who still face a ‘real-world’ with real gender inequality.

A world where according to the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership just 23 per cent of national parliamentarians are female globally, while women make up just 26 per cent of news media leaders, 27 per cent of judges, 25 per cent of senior managers, 15 per cent of corporate board members and 9 per cent of senior IT leaders. All-girls learning environments build confidence, grit and a readiness to step up and lead and to challenge the people and opinions that perpetuate gender inequality.

Currently, single-sex schools make up just 12 per cent of all Australian secondary schools (7 per cent girls’ schools and 5 per cent boys’ schools). If we want to improve gender equality and outcomes for girls beyond school then perhaps we need to be looking at providing more single-sex schools, especially in areas where parents are denied the choice of a single-sex education for their children.

The choice for girls—and boys—to learn in a single-sex environment is equally important as for those who wish to choose a co-ed environment.

Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne