Does Single-Sex Education Lead Women to Stereotypical Jobs?

I’ve seen a lot of talk about a recent study published in the journal of Science that claims that single-sex education may do more harm than good teaching children to embrace gender stereotypes. The study – conducted by a group of individuals including psychologists, child development specialists and neuroscientists who specialize in gender – claims that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that fantastic single-sex institutions derive their success from the fact that they are single-sex. Instead, the authors of the paper hypothesize that other factors such as the quality of students, curriculum, or even “short-lived motivation that comes from ‘novelty or belief in innovation'” are the real reasons for success.

Now, admittedly I’ve probably been seeing a lot more about this study than most because I’m more interested in the subject having attended both a single-sex high school and following that up by attending Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. I loved my college experience, I attended class with one man in 8 years and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

However, I saw a source request from HARO last week asking for thoughts from women who were educated at single-sex institutions wondering whether or not that education reinforced gender stereotypes about the careers women could have.

My first thought was a knee-jerk, “OMG NO! Of course it didn’t.”

But then, I started thinking about it. What led me to be passionate about women’s education?

Obviously, the empowerment of women played a huge role – being surrounded by strong female leaders in every student position on campus; having guest lectures from amazing authors like Faith Adiele and actresses like Camryn Manheim, Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver; and knowing that SMC alumnae can and do do anything they want, from serving in Iraq to serving on the Supreme Court of Virginia, from social work to writing, to nursing, to teaching, to being housewives, to studying the affects of soy intake on lab rats. The women who join me in calling Saint Mary’s their alma mater are quite honestly inspiring.

They are the reason that I knew I could do anything and they are the reason that women educated at Saint Mary’s

Based on my college experience alone, I would say that there is no way that a single-sex education promotes women to fall into gender stereotypes when it comes to careers.

But, I am an interesting case because I also attended an all-girl’s high school and that is where my dilemma comes in – the faculty and staff there told me that I could anything I could dream of, but there wasn’t any exposure to women in varied careers.

We had a yearly “career day” type event where we could sign up for meetings with former alumnae or mothers of students but I remember a lot of them were nurses or teachers – one year we had a flight attendant – but we were also able to sign up for movie watches – I saw Bowling for Columbine on that day in junior year – or silk screening and other artsy activities. Now that I look back on it, I’m really not sure what the purpose of the entire day was and I’m pretty sure they’ve since cancelled it since it had little point and it took time out of course activities.

In terms of classes, we took courses like “Lifestyles” where we learned how to sew, how to write checks, how to set a table and how to write incredibly outdated resumes. We also were able to take cooking classes and many of our after school activities with clubs (language clubs in particular) were cooking related. They tried to empower us in our classes, but we didn’t really have access to powerful women in the working world that could alter our viewpoints on what women could do.

I already knew what I wanted to do in a very general sense in high school. I knew where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to major in. But, I have a lot of friends who were typical high schoolers and didn’t have any idea where to go to school, but a lot wanted to be teachers or nurses. While there is obviously nothing wrong with being a teacher or a nurse, they may have pursued those careers because those were the only careers they were exposed as young women. Those that didn’t go to college right after high school still did very feminine activities of becoming hair dressers or florists – again, nothing wrong with the careers, but they’re still stereotypically female roles.

We didn’t see women around us who were doing things that weren’t traditionally feminine. For example, even though our biology teacher spent her summers studying the effects of the demise of a miniature fish in lake waters of South America we didn’t see her as a scientist … she was still just our teacher.

That’s not to say that there aren’t girls from my high school doing great things with their lives. And it’s also not to say that there wasn’t a disproportionate number of people who left my high school and went on to become teachers or nurses as compared to a coeducational facility. It’s just me saying that if I hadn’t been exposed to the passion and inspiration of strong, successful women in college I probably would have floundered so much more upon graduation when I tried to figure out what to do in the “real world.”

This study has forced me to re-imagine the way single-sex education works on different levels. Sure there are a lot of positives that aren’t quantifiable, such as whether or not the subtraction of the distraction of men helps women do better, but at a high school level it may be detrimental when there isn’t enough time to nurture a young woman’s career path. It makes sense that in college, when it’s expected that students will be figuring out and focusing on their careers, they should be exposed to powerful people in the working world – a women’s college just allows you to further winnow the field to find powerful, inspiring women in a broad range of different careers.


Post By Liz Harter (70 Posts)

Liz Harter has a degree in English Writing with a minor in Spanish from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She is an award winning journalist on the collegiate level with a strong background in journalism. She currently works in PR and is a social media autodidact Google+

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About the Author

Liz Harter has a degree in English Writing with a minor in Spanish from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She is an award winning journalist on the collegiate level with a strong background in journalism. She currently works in PR and is a social media autodidact Google+

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