Single-sex education and sexual stereotypes

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Duración lectura: 5m. 50s.
niña

A great deal of research has analyzed how the type of school, and more specifically classmate profiles, can play a role in the gender gap in math. In this sense, all-girls and all-boys schools are particularly interesting fields of study to prove or refute different theses: Do they reinforce stereotypes associated with each sex, consequently increasing the gender gap in math? Or, on the contrary, do they contribute to closing it to the extent that they offer a comparisons-free environment?

Scientific literature is inconclusive in this regard. Some studies indicate that differences in grades or preferences between boys and girls aren’t reduced in co-ed schools; in some cases, they even increase, as seen in one Irish study. However, the widening of the gender gap in math observed in this analysis is not due to the fact that female students from all-girls schools obtain worse results than those from mixed-gender schools, but rather because boys from single-sex schools improve with respect to their counterparts in co-ed school.

Another study, in this case Australian, indicates that the seemingly greater disposition towards technical careers found among students in all-girls schools in the country disappears when the effect of other variables, such as socioeconomic levels, is taken out of the equation. On the other hand, it does seem that Australian single-sex schools break stereotypes when it comes to life science careers, which are highly feminized; the percentage of boys who opt to study a life science-related degree is higher than the average, and that of girls’ is lower.

Positive effects

Nonetheless, there are also numerous examples in scientific literature that suggest single-sex schools do indeed have a positive effect in reducing the math gender gap. One that focuses on Swiss students is especially interesting, as it takes advantage of a real experiment carried out in the country, in which a group of female students was randomly assigned to gender-mixed or girls-only classes, and their performance was observed over a time period of up to four years. The students assigned to single-sex girls classes obtained higher grades in mathematics, and developed greater confidence in their abilities for the subject. On the other hand, no difference was observed in this regard when it came to the subject Language.

Another similar experiment, carried out in Chile, showed similar results: the female students assigned to all-girl classes for math (within a co-ed school) achieved better grades than the rest of the girls, to the point that the math gender gap was more than halved.

Some research concludes that single-sex education helps shrink the gender gap in math, but other research fails to see any positive effect

A meta-analysis from 2010 tries to take stock of the different research published up until then. Regarding the math gender gap, it points out that many studies suggest that single-sex schools manage to reduce it; many others show no significant effect, or only insofar as disadvantaged students are considered. On the other hand, very few studies find single-sex education to have a negative impact on the math gender gap. The same can be said when it comes to the gender gap in math-related careers (that is, there being fewer girls opting to pursue technical careers). Numerous studies show evidence that single-sex education lessens the sexually stereotyped decision-making process of what to study beyond high school, and many others deny there’s a relationship at all, but there are hardly any examples of single-sex schools widening the gap.

Pressure at the board

Hence, although scientific literature doesn’t offer a unanimous assessment of the effect that different kinds of schools can have on the so-called “gender gap in sciences”, at least it does seem that, in certain contexts, single-sex education can be useful in shrinking it. As almost always is the case in the world of education, perhaps the most determining factor is the environment that each teacher creates in their classroom. We wanted to ask math teachers from both single-sex and co-ed schools their opinions, and more importantly, hear their experience about the so-called “gender gap” between their students.

Natalia’s been a math teacher at a co-ed school in Madrid for more than ten years. She teaches high school students. While she hasn’t seen a gender gap in terms of grades, she tells Aceprensa, in relation to attitudes towards the subject, girls are less interested.

When I ask her if she’s sensed greater insecurity amongst her female students, she admits that she never gave it much importance, but that when it comes to getting up in front of the class to solve problems at the board, her female students are much more reluctant to volunteer than their male peers. A greater fear of failure? “Maybe.” But when it comes to stereotypes about needing a certain degree of intelligence to excel in math, it’s not found more in one sex or the other, she believes.

On the other hand, she notes that far fewer of her female students plan on going into technical fields in comparison to their male peers. There seems to be, she comments, a certain disposition in women to think in terms of “where can I help the most?” Natalia fundamentally attributes this tendency to cultural stereotypes.

Regarding whether all-girls schools can contribute in shrinking the math gender gap, she points out that, although she’s not in favor of single-sex schools in general, they might indeed help girls to feel less pressure when it comes to going up to the board. “The boys go up without a problem; if they’re wrong, it doesn’t matter. But it’s not the same with girls”.

Equal opportunities, not results

Gema, also a math teacher, has taught in all-girls schools as well as co-ed schools. And currently she works in one that mixes sexes depending on subjects. In part, her experience coincides with Natalia’s: in high school, most girls chose Biology while the majority of boys opt to take Technical Drawing instead. However, she proudly points out that in her more recent high school classes (which are mixed), many of the girls have opted to study engineering in college.

She emphasizes that the objective should be to offer equal opportunities for each student to choose what they want to pursue in college, rather than focusing on closing the gender gap that exists when it comes to choosing a technical vocation at all costs.

On the other hand, she’s unsure whether this stems from cultural stereotypes or psychological factors: “The neuropsychologists are the ones who would know.” However, she recognizes she sees a difference in the way girls and boys approach math. Girls in general, Gema affirms, are more hardworking, and although it usually takes them longer before they have that “aha moment”, they can achieve just as much as boys.

What she has found to be true is that more boys participate in regional math competitions and their grades in math are higher at all ages, especially in high school.

Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher

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