Sitting on the gender fence

A while ago, I tweeted the following:

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 8.03.24 PM

(the tweeted link no longer works, but it is here)

…and had a friend respond with the (I imagine sincere) query: “what starts?”

I’ve thought about how to best answer this, and decided it merits a post.

The story was very straightforward really: school decides boys need encouragement to read more, and start a club to encourage them.  So far so good.  The club is boys only.  Here I wrinkle my nose and wonder if this is really necessary.  Then a child is quoted in the paper saying that the club is cool, specifically because it excludes girls.

Children say these things.  This is the world they are brought up in, and this is not so surprising, nor anything to get upset about.  The fact that this quote was what the story was built around?  That does bother me.

The reference to feeling ill was meant rather indirectly: not so much that the story itself was upsetting, but more that I knew in advance that commenting that I didn’t like it would be seen as overly sensitive. Let me put this straight: I approve of anything that encourages children to read more, though I have to admit that personally I never saw that it had much to offer as a social activity.  But if a club encourages children to read, then that is all to the good.

Why the need for gender segregation?

I remember being told, at age 11 or 12, the standard trope about single sex education: it results in improved outcomes for girls, and even though boys do better in co-ed schools, single sex schools result in better outcomes overall.  I wasn’t a hugely critical 12 year-old, and I received this piece of information with a straightforward feeling of pleasure to be on the right side of the gender fence, for once.

I have already referred to studies that show that performance can vary in the presence of the other sex.  So yes, I think it entirely likely that single sex education resulted in significantly improved outcomes for girls, in coping with and moderating a sexist society. The differentiated choices of girls at single-sex vs co-ed high schools in studying physics is a clearly demonstrated modern example.  But here’s the rub: just as it is impossible to have a level playing field in science in the absence of gender equality, it is impossible to know whether single sex education would have any positive impact in a world in which the sexes were effectively equal.

To put this all more bluntly: single sex schooling only puts off the time when women are forced to confront the fact that stereotypes are real, and that they do real damage.  Worse than that; is it possible that segregating the sexes actually does more harm through the reinforcement of stereotype that the good it achieves through insulation from reality?

I wonder: how do those 12 year old boys feel on being told that they are going to single sex schools for the sake of their sisters’ education?  Or do they get told a different story?

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One Response to Sitting on the gender fence

  1. Pingback: Necessary evils | Why Science Is Sexist

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