Single Sex Classes

Reader Cassandra sent us this article, on the rise of single-sex state education in the US, particularly in the early teen years. I expected my reaction to be wholly negative, and there’s plenty there to trigger a negative response: Throwing balls to boys when they’re called on to keep their attention! Having girls analyse makeup in chemistry classes! I mean, Stereotypes R US, right? But… one girl who chose single sex classes (over her parents’ protests) talks about how it gave her the confidence boost she needed to be more assertive when she returned to mixed-sex classes. This is just the kind of argument we hear for keeping all-women’s colleges, and feminists are often receptive to these arguments. And: think about the age range we’re discussing. At a very early age, it would look like simply gender indoctrination, and we’ve already got too much of that. But by the early teen years, these forces have already done much of their work and pressure to conform is at its highest. Is it so crazy to suppose that the result of these pressures *could* be boys and girls benefiting from different kinds of classes? And think again about the makeup analysis. Is it really clearly mistaken to use the undeniably widespread teenage girl interest in makeup to get teenage girls interested in chemistry? If pressure to think about makeup could make chemistry cool, wouldn’t this be a good thing? (Similar thoughts apply to the ball-throwing, arguably.) Sure, it would be better to get rid of all the gender-conformity pressure. But since it *is* there right now, we should also try to do the best we can for the kids who are already its victims. Still, of course huge and troubling issues remain: is this just enhancing the gender-conformity pressure? Will boys who don’t like balls and girls who don’t like makeup just find life even harder? I know I myself would have hated the idea. And what about trans-kids? I’m certainly not convinced that this is the right approach– a part of me still hates it quite viscerally, and on balance I still probably oppose it. But I’m surprised to find myself not just dismissing it out of hand.

4 thoughts on “Single Sex Classes

  1. I think that for me, it ultimately comes down to a question of choice. The article (and others that I’ve read) does not seem to indicate whether the kids have a choice of enrolling in single-sex classes or maintaining a co-ed environment. My feeling is that if you’re going to run a “girls” math class and a “boys” math class, they should also have a mixed gender math class.

    I think that it’s undeniable that there are trends as to how girls tend to learn and how boys tend to learn. But it’s outrageously far from universal. I imagine that many girls would be interested in learning about chemistry through talking about makeup. For them, this would be a good thing and a way to take a traditionally male-driven field and introduce it to women. Personally, though, I would have hated it and rolled my eyes the whole time. By the same token, my husband also would have suffered tremendously in a class where they talked about cars and he was expected to catch a ball on command.

    For college, I would have been far less reluctant to engage in an all-female class environment, but that’s because the college environment is much more sophisticated. Obviously there are still a lot of sexist professors, but by contrast high schools are an absolute nightmare of gender conformity. And I don’t really think that we need to encourage that, and I know for sure that we should not be imposing it.

  2. I think I would have hated this, and anyone who feels uneasy with the official gender rules would probably be worse for it. I have a couple of nagging concerns about this, but they’re based on my own experience, and I wonder whether it’s just me being paranoid.

    If high school is so much about conformity — and I do believe that — would such an elective scheme really be a free choice? I think that could have the side effect of creating yet another divide. If the parents are supposed to choose, I’m afraid single sex classes could be used to “correct” the behavior of people who don’t stick to the rules.

    The college side reminds me of the recent post about the unnoticed lack of women in some circles. I work in a male dominated field, but I came there by a roundabout route, so I do notice — and lament — this situation. But I think that part of the reason why these guys don’t think twice about it is that most of them went to schools were women were also the exception within both faculty and students. So by the time they graduate they come to expect women to be in administrative roles, and the more open of them are often uneasy when interacting professionally with women. I often hear that students are distracted in coed classes, but I think that if people learned about interacting outside of the dating game earlier, my life at least would be much easier.

  3. I can’t make myself okay with the concept, but I can’t quite articulate why. I think it comes down to the way it ultimately increases the pressure of gender-conformity and defining the rules, and I don’t think the ends justify the means in this case. I agree that there can be practical benefits, but, as you say, they’re not getting at the core of the problem, which limits their impact to the individuals who attend the classes without any real systemic effect.

    I guess I also wonder if strategies like this then end up preventing us from questioning the broader systemic stuff, because hey, we’ve found something ‘good enough’, even if it doesn’t really solve or change the basic problem.

  4. Single-sex classes increase the range of behaviours available to girls, in my experience. In single-sex classes my daughters no longer got ignored in favor of the boys and the teacher spent less time dealing with testosterone-poisoned attention spans. They got to do all the roles. They blossomed in an all-girls middle school.

    When my first child was born, we tried not to tell anyone the sex (Baby X) because it shouldn’t matter, with very interesting results. The external assumptions are so strong that one person who decided which sex my child was didn’t notice having chosen the wrong sex even when changing diapers!

    One of my daughters did her fourth grade science fair project on who gets called on in class. She thought one of the other girls got called on the most. The data showed the boys called out, raised their hands, and got called on the most, even though the teacher was very aware. The teacher did do a good job of calling on people who rarely raised their hands when they did.

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