Girls prefer single-sex PE classes & sporting activities

Researchers have found that mixed-sex sporting activities at school reinforce existing gender stereotypes that boys are ‘better’ at sport, leading to girls being discouraged from taking part. In addition, especially during adolescence when girls are highly conscious of body image and weight, they are reluctant to wear physical education (PE) uniforms or take part in PE classes and sporting activities with boys. Unsurprisingly, multiple studies find that girls prefer female-only PE classes, sports, fitness activities and outdoor education.

• Mission Australia’s large-scale annual survey of young people aged 15-19 revealed that students at girls’ schools obtained higher scores than the female average in the key area of physical and mental health, even during the pandemic year of 2020. More girls attending single-sex schools in 2020 reported participating in sport over the past year than the average female (75% vs 68.6%) (Mission Australia, 2020).

• A study of the gendered nature of mixed-sex sailing programs for school students aged 14-18 in France and the United States concluded that “young men were viewed as being more legitimate participants and regularly took up the role of lead skipper — young women were considered secondary participants and were typically positioned as crew members” (Schmitt, Atencio & Sempé, 2020, pp. 1-2). Boys taking part in the study believed that girls were “less capable sailors” and “tried to intimidate the girls during races” (p. 9). This is consistent with previous studies which found that school sport “privileges males and often devalues female participants” (p. 2).

• A 2020 Scottish study has found that girls spend significantly more time undertaking moderate to vigorous physical activity in single-gender PE lessons. In addition, most girls enjoy and prefer single-gender Physical Education (PE) lessons for games such as basketball. The study authors suggest that segregating PE classes for game-based activities could lead to greater health benefits for girls through a higher level of physical activity (Wallace, Buchan & Sculthorpe, 2020, pp. 231).

• A 2019 American study has found that PE lessons in co-educational schools “reinforce more sedentary behaviour in girls due to a more male-dominated, traditional, team-sport oriented curriculum that lacks a wide variety of choices” (p. 110). Timken, McNamee and Coste write that international research has demonstrated that co-ed physical activity and PE lessons “have been places rife with dominance, harassment, and intimidation of girls, leading girls to disengage and/or prefer different circumstances” (p. 111). Girls may prefer dance and fitness activities to traditional sports activities because they do not require a team, are non-competitive, can occur any time, and may require less coordination than team sports (p. 110). In addition, multiple studies have found that girls prefer single-gender rather than mixed gender PE classes, with two studies demonstrating that girls who participate in single-gender teams show increased competence, possibly because they perceived less competition and felt more confident about their ability level compared with the other girls (p. 111).

• A UK study found that the majority of girls support separating girls and boys for sports activities. There was also stakeholder support for girls’ sports activities to be run by female coordinators who could act as role models (Morgan, Van Godwin, Darwent & Fildes, 2019, pp. 1, 4, 7). The authors’ recommendations include that co-ed schools should introduce female-only physical activity sessions that take place after school and that female role models should be used as facilitators of these activities (pp. 9-12).

• Citing a 2014 study, Crystal Vargos writes that co-ed classes have been found to have a “negative effect” on girls’ participation levels in PE for multiple reasons including gender stereotypes, the teacher, the class environment, and the competitive design of PE classes. In addition, “Feelings of embarrassment, lack of confidence and self-efficacy, body image concerns, disinterest in particular activities, and dominance of males in PE” are reasons why females may dislike participating in co-ed PE classes (Vargos, 2017, pp. 1-2, citing Murphy, Diongi & Litchfield, 2014, n.p.).

• A 2014 meta-analysis of 22 studies found that the largest increases in sports participation occurred in studies where interventions were based on single-sex activities. In particular, interventions that targeted girls, rather than girls and boys together, had a “higher effect size”. The study authors noted that this effect was not just present in adolescent girls who may be experiencing body image concerns, but also in younger girls. They concluded that “ongoing physical education and other structured physical activity contexts might require greater use of single sex provision” (Biddle, Braithwaite & Pearson, 2014, p. 129).

• An American study examining co-educational and single gender PE classes in a middle school found that girls in a single gender class had “significantly more game involvement than females in a co-educational class” (Pritchard, McCollum, Sundal & Colquit, 2014, p. 133).

• Patterson and Collins (2012) assessed the attitudes of middle school girls towards their PE classes. Approximately 44% of girls wanted single-sex PE classes so that they would feel “more confident about participating, the boys would not make fun of them and they would feel less scared” (p. 14). The authors concluded that “single gender physical education classes can and should be provided” because they may “better address the educational needs of some adolescent girls” (p. 15).

• Lyu and Gill (2011) found that female students in “same-sex classes had notably higher scores in perceived physical competence, enjoyment and effort than females in coeducational classes, who had the lowest competence, enjoyment and effort perceptions” (p. 255). The researchers concluded that “in terms of the educational benefits, same-sex classes may be the better teaching environment in adolescent physical education, particularly for girls” (p. 257).

• American girls who participated in an all-girls adventure program, which included activities such as rock climbing, sea kayaking and mountain climbing, reported numerous benefits. Whittington, Nixon Mack, Budbill and McKenney (2011, p. 11) concluded that their study provided: “evidence that for girls, single-sex adventure programs reduced competition, self-consciousness … and concerns about appearance. Girls were more able to embrace the experience and to focus on self-exploration and personal growth. Additionally, single-sex adventure programs can facilitate greater participation for girls, increase opportunities to explore new skills and take risks, and provide space for girls to develop positive peer relationships.”

• A 2010 Australian study found that 82% of teachers “perceived single-sex contexts to be more effective in achieving higher student participation and performance levels” in PE classes (Best, Pearson & Webb, 2010, p. 1021). In addition, 79% believed that single-sex PE classes allowed students “to reach their full performance potential” (p. 1020). Factors including distractions, harassment, embarrassment, competitiveness and uneven strength levels had a greater negative influence on students’ participation in PE in co-educational settings. Overall, “the dominant view within this study … is that single-sex PE environments are, in the majority of circumstances, the most supportive classroom structure for achieving higher student participation and performance levels” (p. 1026).

• Sharon Whitlock’s trial of single-sex volleyball classes demonstrated that girls in single-sex environments had stronger self-efficacy for learning volleyball than girls in co-educational environments. She concluded that, “Both teachers and students noted that the boys were not able to dominate the [girl-only] classes. Girls reported that they preferred learning volleyball skills without the boys being in the class, and if given the choice, believed that they would have an overall better physical education experience in single-sex classes” (Whitlock, 2012, p. 79). Furthermore, “Clearly, these findings propose that single-sex environments seem to be more beneficial for boosting the efficacy levels of middle school girls in volleyball classes than coeducational environments, and could provide a better learning experience for girls” (p. 85).