EducationPop Quiz

Pop quiz: Gender-segregated schools

So, in my debut at School of doubt, I asked a pretty focused question for teachers.  Perhaps it was too narrow, because I got no comments on it.

Then Jennifer showed me the way.  To get comments, you need to write about something more basic.


This topic however, is not one I have much expertise on.  You see, I don’t have one and I teach at a women’s college.  Most of the faculty here are women too.  Penises are pretty rare around here.

So if I can’t talk about penises, I suppose I could talk about a women’s college and the lack thereof.  When I was an undergraduate, I couldn’t afford to go anywhere but a large state university, so I never even thought about why someone would choose a women’s college or university, much less going to one.  Now that I teach at one, I’m struck by what’s different about the environment, but also by what’s the same.

The differences are probably not surprising.  The main perception by our students is that this school is “safe” for them.  The school has a reputation for being “nurturing” and understanding of the struggles many young women have in balancing work (almost all of our students have jobs), family (many are already mothers), and school.  There is a day care on campus.  There are many night classes available.

Otherwise it’s not really that different, especially in the classroom itself.  I run into all the usual issues of students not doing the reading and students struggling with the pace, etc.  Some students soak up the material like sponges and others work their hardest to do well.  Some are slackers; some are bored, etc.  Many of our students participate in the same kinds of activities found on any coed campus, including sports, clubs, charity drives, etc.  Indeed, that may be a way for them to learn leadership skills they wouldn’t get otherwise.

The few occasions when a man was present in the classroom, I DID feel the dynamics change, but it wasn’t that the women were distracted or intimidated; it was that they deferred.  And I did too!  I called on him first, I asked him the most questions, and when I realized I was doing it and tried to stop, it was really, really hard!  It was also very hard for the women to speak up; my admittedly subjective measure of their response time in women-only situations vs. this one was more than 10 seconds longer.  Interestingly, there is no solid evidence that gender segregation changes performance for either gender (assuming a binary is commonplace; as far as I can find there’s nothing out there in the pedagogical research about non-binary genders), though this survey study indicated women like women-only environments and engage more in them. There is evidence that it improves motivation and self esteem in girls (pdf), but other studies suggest segregated classrooms may actually make gender stereotyping more profound (pdf).

So, while woefully lacking in penises, here’s my question to you: what do you think about gender-segregated schools – an opportunity for growth or a relic of the past?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. April 14, 2014 at 3:39 pm —

    I have mixed feelings. About penises. Wait, sorry, no. I have mixed feelings about gendered schools.

    On one hand, I can kind of see the appeal, especially for girls, for reasons you mention. On the other, it’s so essentialist, and so indicative of the ways in which our culture persists in the idea that the defining aspect of every human being on every level = female or male. You can’t even order a fucking Happy Meal without having to declare as boy or girl. Not that I eat that stuff anyway; they have Happy Meals for boys or girls but none for vegetarians, which, if you think about it, is a MUCH MORE RELEVANT CATEGORY for food products.

  2. April 14, 2014 at 7:59 pm —

    I do agree that it’s yet another men/women thing, and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it myself even after working here for a while. I do think it has been a good opportunity for many women and that they may not have been able to succeed elsewhere, but that a women’s college may simply be a bandaid, not a cure.

  3. April 15, 2014 at 12:01 pm —

    Having gone to an all boy high school, one positive I’ve noticed is that it made us more affectionate towards each other. No girls were around so we were not spending our time trying to impress females by being cruel to each other.

    • April 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm —

      “[…] it made us more affectionate towards each other.”

      As we all learned in such glorious detail from Hitch’s autobiography.

      I actually considered applying for an open job at a religious women’s college this year, but in the end decided against it. Something about it just made me feel a bit odd, not to mention the problems it poses for choral singing!

  4. April 15, 2014 at 5:27 pm —

    I went to an all girls high school and a predominantly women’s college and I have to say that the experience showed me the broad spectrum of what it means to be female. Yes, you are sorted into a group by what parts you have, but after that it was all open. There were females that I shared classes with that were very “girly” and those who were more masculine and everything in between. I believe it made me more tolerant for the different ways people express being female.

    I also have to agree with Richard. I saw the same thing. Since there were no boys around there was a greater acceptance of “different”, because I think there was no competition for the attentions of boys.

    My only hang up with it is that it is totally based on what parts you have. If the organizations followed the Girl Scout model and accepted anyone who identified themselves as a girl I would be much happier.

    • April 15, 2014 at 8:55 pm —

      I just want to point out the positive correlation with penises and comments! Thanks Jennifer! Also, I do agree that gender essentialism is a problem and this isn’t a perfect solution. I really don’t know how this place would handle a trans woman, though I hope it would be with respect.

  5. April 15, 2014 at 6:24 pm —

    I’ve heard enough positive reports from women-only schools to believe they have some merit–most very much along the lines of what you mention here. My reservations about them have to do with the problems for trans* students. In some cases, I’ve found that it’s not at all clear what the school’s policy on transstudents is, which can lead to discrimination if one isn’t careful.

    Beyond that, though, creating spaces for under-represented groups seems completely legitimate to me.

    • April 15, 2014 at 8:52 pm —

      I agree with you in regards to trans* individuals. I have no idea how this school would handle it, though I feel as Jennifer does above that if you identify as a woman, that’s good enough for me. It’s the non-binary people who are left out the cold.

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