University, careers and leadership

Research shows that girls who attend single-sex schools are more likely to achieve their personal best at school, be confident of their academic ability, and aspire to graduate and postgraduate study — all of which are highly advantageous in the development of their careers and in achieving their leadership potential. Alumnae of girls’ schools are also more likely to enter male-dominated careers, which is advantageous for their future earning potential.

• A detailed analysis of the exam results of over 4,700 female students in Poland has found that girls from single-sex schools scored higher than girls from closely matched co-ed schools on a national high-stakes science exam, indicating that “attending an all-girls school might significantly affect future educational, career and job opportunities of young women” (Koniewski & Hawrot, 2021, p. 1).

• Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2020 of young people aged 15-19 revealed that students at girls’ schools obtained higher scores than the female average in educational and career aspirations. Despite the pandemic, a higher proportion of girls’ school students intended to obtain a university degree (88.1%) compared with 69.9% of all females aged 15-19. In addition, 56.7% of girls attending single-sex schools reported feeling positive or very positive about their future compared with 52.6% of all females (Mission Australia, 2020).

• A 2019 study by Dr Phillippa Carnemolla of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found that 55% of girls enrolling in the Bachelor of Construction Project Management degree at UTS from 2010-2018 had attended an all-girls schools, despite girls’ schools only comprising 9% of schools in New South Wales (p. 29).

• Similarly, in New Zealand, where 13% of students (male and female) attend single-sex schools, a study found that girls enrolling in engineering at Canterbury University between 2005 and 2017 were more likely to have attended a single-sex school. Over half (56%) of female engineering students had attended a girls’ school, a rate “significantly higher” than the national average. Among the nine engineering schools at the university, the highest proportion occurred in computer engineering, where 71% of females had attended a single-sex school (Docherty et al., 2018, pp. 1,3).

• A 2019 study of schools belonging to the Young Women’s Preparatory Network in Texas found that students attending the all-girls’ schools showed stronger academic performance in maths and science in middle school and high school, received less formal discipline for poor behaviour, and were more likely to enrol in universities and four-year colleges than girls from co-educational schools who were closely matched on an array of background characteristics including demographics and academic performance in primary school (Pustejovsky, 2019, pp. 1, 6).

• A 2018 study by Fitzsimmons, Yates and Callan has found that self-confidence is “gender neutral” in single-sex schools with girls equally as confident as boys (p. 54). “The importance of this finding cannot be understated,” write the report authors (p. 54), “since arguments over the origins of women’s self-confidence in the workplace are driving organisational interventions in the areas of pay and progression, leadership development, executive selection and communication, to name but a few.” (Also see, Fitzsimmons, Yates & Callan, 2021.)

• A 2018 German study has found that single-sex programs in computer science and mechanical engineering held since 2001 have led to a decrease in the number of female students dropping out of STEM disciplines at German universities. As a result, these programs have helped lead to an increase in the number of females in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields (Busolt, Ludewig & Schmidt, 2018, p. 251).

• An Australian study, which found that girls attending single-sex schools are more likely to take male-dominated STEM subjects at school and university than girls at co-educational schools, concluded that by “creating a more friendly environment for girls at school, at university and in the workplace which permits them to excel and achieve their potential”, we could begin to address the gender pay gap which results in financial disparities between women and men (Tran, 2017, p. 78).

• In 2015, 7.1% of girls who attended Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) schools in England commenced medicine or dentistry degrees; 5.4% entered physical science degrees (including physics and chemistry); 3.7% studied engineering degrees; and 2.6% took up mathematical or computer sciences. All of these figures are well above the national girls’ participation rates in these subjects (Stannard, 2018, p. 16).

• On 13 October 2014, Professor Alison Booth, Professor of Economics and a Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that: “Females alone appear to benefit from single-gender classes and they benefit significantly. Women in all-female classes are much more likely to gain a higher degree score and to get a higher-classification degree.”

•  A New Zealand study found that 58% of girls from single-sex schools attended university by age 25 compared with 38% of co-educated girls, and that 43% attained a university degree by age 25 compared with 22% of girls from co-educational schools (Gibb, Fergusson and Horwood, 2008, p. 310).

• Watson, Quatman and Edler (2002) found that girls at single-sex schools had higher real career aspirations than girls at co-educational schools. Career aspirations remained steady and high for many years among girls at single-sex schools but in co-educational schools, ideal and realistic career aspiration scores dropped significantly during the secondary years. Referring to single-sex schools, the researchers concluded that “when girls become the focal point, they rise to a greater level of development than might otherwise ordinarily be the case” (p. 333).

• A 2009 study by Linda Sax based on the UCLA Higher Education Research Freshman Study, which separated single-sex schooling from other influences including socioeconomic background and parental education, found that first-year university students who attended girls’ schools outscored their co-educational counterparts on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), with mean SAT composite scores (Verbal plus Math) from 28-43 points higher. In addition, 71% of girls from single-sex schools considered college as a prelude to graduate school, compared with 66% from co-ed schools (p. 8).

• Sax also found that graduates of single-sex schools were three times more likely than girls who attended co-ed schools to say they intended to pursue a career in engineering (4.4% vs. 1.4%) and were more confident of their ability in maths (48% rated themselves above average compared with 37% of girls from co-ed schools) and computer skills (36% rated themselves in the highest categories compared with 26% of girls from co-ed schools) (pp. 9-10).

• Sullivan, Joshi and Leonard (2010, p. 25) found that “women who had attended single-sex schools were more likely than coeducated women to gain their highest qualification by age 33 in a male-dominated field“. And a 2011 study by the same researchers found that women who attended single-sex schools earned wages 5% higher than women who had attended co-educational schools (Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2011, p. 329). This economic advantage was accounted for by their superior academic achievement in their O-level examinations at age 16 (p. 328).

• An American study exploring the effects of attending a girls’ high school on labour market outcomes found that women who attended single-sex schools “earn a 19.7% higher wage than women who attended coeducational high schools”, though this wage differential falls to 12.6% after controlling for personal characteristics and selection bias (Billger, 2007, p. 166). Nevertheless, Billger concluded that there was a “substantial” economic return for women who had attended single-sex schools (p. 181).

• An Australian study conducted by Nicole Archard exploring the leadership attitudes of girls attending single-sex schools has found that girls in these contexts have a clear understanding of the ways in which confidence, competition and failure may significantly impact on their capacity as leaders, by inhibiting or facilitating them in their pursuit of leadership roles (Archard, 2012, pp. 189-190). Girls taking part in the study believed their single-sex school was teaching them to be a strong, independent leader and predicted that their confidence would be worse in a mixed sex environment where they may or may not be encouraged to pursue leadership roles (p. 196).