Single-Sex Education: Not Your Grandfather’s Segregation.

Susan-B_-AnthonyAs new leadership takes hold and the alumnae-led Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., completes the final $12 million settlement installment, Sweet Briar begins to rebuild. The 114-year-old women’s college earned a perfect 99 score from Princeton Review—twice—and was the only U.S. school to make all four of Princeton’s academic top-20 lists in 2010 and is still listed at No. 116 by U.S. News and World Report. Yet, within the news media’s coverage of the four-month battle to save it, many comments, and some of the articles, describe it as part finishing school, part convent, part angry lesbian commune, and part slumber party almost complete with slow-motion panty-clad pillow fights—a combination of conflicting stereotypes and male fantasy.  It’s clear many see it as a segregation relic. As a 1994 alumna of SBC, I can tell you why single-sex education isn’t a relic and why it should be fought for.

It’s because we need six female members of SCOTUS, 80% of Congress and 70% of CEOs and top management positions. That’s how many men we have in those positions now and this is simply accepted as normal.

There was a time when barring women from voting was considered normal until a group led by women like Susan B. Anthony fought for years, often against other women. What many suffragists had in common was that they grew up Quakers, a religious society which had leadership equality. Women spoke out, voted and held office. Once achieved, suffragists thought women would have 50% of congress with the next vote. It was a huge disappointment. The rest of the voters, both men and women, continued to see the imbalance as normal.

Although only 2% of female college grades went to women’s schools, 20% of women in Congress did and regularly 30% of women listed in top business positions, according to the Women’s College Coalition. Statistics like this show that, while women’s colleges won’t single-handedly solve the remaining gender gap, they are a big part of the puzzle.

The assumption is often that women’s colleges are part of the problem, that not having men around to compete with will leave them unable to cope when men are around. The research belies that assumption, and the reverse is rarely considered. The idea of a Hampden-Sydney grad not knowing how to function with women around is ludicrous.

(Singlesexschools.org provides research and statistics demonstrating the benefits to male students as well as female. It’s an equal crime that all-male colleges are down to three. Title IX was meant to be about devoting equal resources, not homogenization of choices.)

The Women’s College Coalition stats include the 1.5 times more likely a women’s college student is to major in the hard sciences than a women at a co-ed school. Many women enter college intending to major in hard sciences but change to the softer sciences before graduating. Why? In the past year, I’ve read an account from a science museum assistant who regularly sees parents steer their girls away from science projects and towards the arts and crafts, a high school honors math student whose teacher consistently takes twenty minutes of class time to answer questions from the boys but hers are often answered with a quick list of page numbers, and a college physics student forced to do projects alone because none of the all-male students will accept a woman in their groups.

None of these women is barred from these professions, rather, they are self-selecting after years of discouragement, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. The discouragement is consistent and difficult to escape without the reprieve of a single-sex educational environment, and that’s part of why such an education results in the above statistics. Yes, it is segregation, but no, it’s not your grandfather’s.

There are two things that make this profoundly different from “separate but equal.” One is that “equal” was a bald-faced lie; otherwise the bus would be separated left and right, not front and back. Second, it is about educational focus. Historically black colleges render similar statistics, particularly with performance in graduate schools. I can’t speak to this from personal experience, but I suspect it’s a combination of undoing internalized racism, similar to what women’s colleges accomplish, and counteracting the lag in educational quality created by lower public school funding due to localized poverty. What you get with this type of segregation is a more focused education with your particular needs in mind. What did the other type of segregation get you? A more focused bus ride? No, it was a daily ego boost to those already in power and a slap to the egos of those who weren’t. The results of which are exactly what segregated education combats. Call it fighting fire with fire.

What women’s colleges really do is remove the imbalance until women no longer see it as normal and are no longer willing to put up with it. We fought hard to remove the overwhelming exclusivity of access to higher education to men that once existed, but that doesn’t mean we need completely homogenized educational choices. What we need is 50% of congress, SCOTUS, executive suites, research funding and equal pay. Those are the archaic monuments to the past that need to go and these statistics show that single-sex education is at least part of what’s going to get us there.