Teaching Feminism: Single-Sex Classrooms Encourage Gender Stereotyping

Welcome toTeaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.

The debate about single-sex classrooms has hit the news circuit again, with recent articles on the matter popping up everywhere from The New Yorker to the Huffington Post to Teaching Tolerance to USA Today. Is this idea gaining traction, or is it just another idea being tossed around about education reform? In short, it’s hard to tell. According to the Huffington Post, the idea of splitting up boys and girls is getting very popular:

In the single-sex classes, teachers use microphones that allow them to electronically adjust the tone of their voice to match the level that research suggests is best for boys. When preparing for a test, the boys may go for a run, or engage in some other activity, while the girls are more likely to do calming exercises, such as yoga…They learn the same curriculum, they still lunch and play at recess together, but the differences in their learning environments are apparent, from the blue chalkboards in the boy classrooms, to the red paper hearts that decorated the wall of one of the girl’s classrooms.

According to one of the teachers teaching in a single-sex environment in a public school in Idaho, the differences in each classroom are driven by student interests based on what they are learning in the curriculum.

However, not everyone agrees that these subtle changes in curriculum are solely driven by student interests. Many believe that the curriculum is being changed based on gender stereotypes and, as such, are harmful to students. The ACLU has publicly spoken out against single-sex classrooms, and has started a letter-writing campaign to get schools to end single-sex classrooms. According to the ACLU website:

Social scientists have found that separating students by sexsimply makes the contrast between the sexes more salient.And, when you look atwhat the proponents of single-sex classrooms are preaching, its easy to see the world segregated classrooms can create. Take Dr. Leonard Sax, who suggests that a boy who likes to read, does not enjoy contact sports, and does not have a lot of close male friends has a problem, even if he thinks he is happy, and that such a boy should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with normal males, and made to play sports.Yikes!

Margaret Talbot, whose article on the topic recently appeared in The New Yorker, agrees with the ACLU, as well, saying that she found it nearly impossible to tell her middle school-aged daughter that she would have to attend a single-sex math class, even though all of her other classes would be co-ed. While Talbot understood the rationale behind separating girls and boys, she couldn’t help but think of the talking Barbie doll that made waves a few years ago for stating, “Math class is tough!”

When it comes to education, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for what works. Some students might flourish in a single-sex environment, and some might not. However, it is the subliminal messages we send our students that need to be addressed when we separate young people based on their gender.The problem with single-sex classrooms in co-ed school districts is the various assumptions about gender we are enforcing. When boys and girls are separated for certain classes, the resounding message is not that boys and girls learn differently, but that girls can’t do what boys do and vice versa. These sorts of stereotypes can not only hinder educational opportunities, but can also carry through to society as these students grow up, and that can foster other stereotypes based on gender throughout these students’ lives.

Students are individuals. Separating them based on assumptions about their gender will have the same detrimental effects as separating them based on race, sexuality, or any other factor. By separating students, we are telling them that they are fundamentally different. Instead, we should be treating each student as an individual learner and allowing them to explore the learning styles that work best for them, regardless of gender.

Related Stories:

Flawed Study: Unclear Results on Single-Sex Schooling

Single-Sex Schools: “Bad” for Boys and Girls?

Single Sex Education Best for Girls Who Prefer Single Sex Environment

Photo Credit: Tulane Public Relations


Alexandra S.
Alexandra S.3 years ago

Just what we need, more alienation between boys and girls, soon to be men and women

Thomas Bridges
Thomas Bridges4 years ago

Is there a real Dr. Leonard Sax? The words attributed to him sound like a made-up story. No one graduating from a respectable college would talk that way.

As far as math and women are concerned, what idiot thought that women were poor at math? In high school I took solid geometry. I got a good grade on the final, but was soundly beaten by Lucille Bemis, who got 97% on the exam. I think she beat me in algebra, too.

By the way, let's not put the Neanderthals down -- again. We know next to nothing about them, but if we ever learn more we will find that the women were treated about the same way that they are today by Homo sapiens males.

Therese Davey
Therese Davey4 years ago

Has anyone asked the students what they prefer? I went to an all girls school (minus the pink hearts but plus some caring nuns who focused on us developing our full human potential with a strong academic interest) all my life and it did me no harm. We were free from the distraction during our school time and we mixed with boys at the usual social and sporting events, in our neighbourhood and never felt we were either not equal to or, different from, boys. Boys and girls share so much but they do learn, act, react and mature at a different pace sometimes and we all know it, they know it themselves. We are not creating stereotypes by having single sex schools, but perhaps the option of a choice is the solution.

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V.4 years ago

America, the next Middle East.

Jos� Mar�


Betsy M.
Betsy M.4 years ago

The physician/ psychologist Leonard Sax is making good money pushing his sloppy science of sex differentiated learning. He tweaks the science to make gender differences in hearing, attention, movement, vision, etc seem quite large while minimizing the spread within gender. Unfortunately he has the ear (and pocket book) of Teacher Education and School Districts. He sees boys as being left behind by girl-oriented classrooms.
My daughters would both have been much happier in the classrooms Sax sees as for boys only. Louder presentation, more movement, cooler, bigger visuals etc. They work for some, not necessarily just for boys. More variety in education, and more choices for students might help more than sex-segregating.

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

How about a mixture throughout the week?

JT Smith4 years ago

BTW, respect (like trust) is earned. It is not a door prize. That statement stands regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, occupation, pick-a-category-ANY-category. Respect is NOT something that can actually be taught. You can teach compassion. You can teach common decency. You can teach common courtesy. But respect and trust both have to be earned! And anyone who demands respect most certainly does not deserve it (as far as I'm concerned). Everyone has their own internal criteria (sometimes even subconscious criteria) that determines just what earns their respect. Just as you have to earn my respect, I also have to earn yours (I simply don't worry about whether anyone respects me or not, and take it as a compliment when they do rather than as an insult if they don't; because if they don't it simply means that I haven't yet earned it). If anyone respects me, and I haven't actually earned it, then it's frankly completely meaningless.

JT Smith4 years ago

I bounced around schools "growing up." The reason is irrelevant. At the high school I graduated from, I was pretty much the odd man out. In gym class, this was literal. There were physically an odd number of students (one more male in the class than the total number of females) in the class. Because of this (combined with basically being the "new kid"), I was always offered my choice of which "sports" to play when it came to the boys playing the "boy sports" and the girls playing the "girl sports." I'm straight, always have been (I'm straight, not narrow). When given the choice, I went with the girls' sports. The girls were MUCH nicer to look at (I played the sports with them, not shared locker rooms!), and I figured that the best way to get close to the girls was to actually get to know them. So, I took full advantage. Naturally, I was called "gay" by the guys. They're idiots. Which I pointed out to them and turned the situation uncomfortably around on them. Frankly, I wouldn't change that part of gym class for anything (for as much as I hated gym class in general.)

Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance4 years ago

I see advantages to both mixed sex and segregated classes, although my entire school career was in mixed classes. My grade 11 English teacher believed that boys had a limited attention span so they were the ones seated by the window. How I envied them. In grade 11 math, I was told at the end of the year that I almost got thrown out of math for talking. Then the teacher realised what was happening. Robert, my co-conspirator who sat behind me, went from failing math to passing with a B+ grade. I finished the year with a 97% grade. In grade 10 math, I was one of 2 girls in a class of 40 --- the class was in the tech wing and generally, the boys there were not expected to do well. Why I was there I have no idea.

If teachers would put more effort into harnessing the strengths of students, without regard to gender, I think more students would suceed.

Had I been in a room with hearts on the walls, I would have withered up. Yes boys and girls learn differently sometimes, but then not all boys or not all girls learn the same way either.

Perhaps what school officials should be doing is looking at the Finish model of education which is child centred. They need to encourage the natural curiosity of children to learn.