Friday, December 14, 2007

Do single-sex high schools influence students' choice of majors and attitudes about sex equality?

Researchers at the University of Scranton asked these questions and recently published their results in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Some proponents of single-sex education argue that students in single-sex environments experience less pressure to conform to gendered expectations. If this benefit is real and long-lasting, one would expect to find that female college students who graduated from single-sex high schools are less likely to concentrate themselves into majors that are traditionally female such as education, nursing, and physical/occupational therapy.

But unfortunately given the recently increased popularly of single-sex education, this hypothesis did not prove true. While alumnae of single-sex high schools were more likely to declare gender-neutral majors than their coeducated peers in their first year of college, this distinction disappears by graduation. Female college graduates who went to single sex high schools were just as concentrated in traditionally-female majors as the ones who had gone to coed high schools.

On the other hand, male college graduates who went to single-sex high schools were less likely to be concentrated in majors that are stereotypically male, such as computers, engineering, and science, suggesting that this particular ostensible benefit of single-sex education -- encouraging students to break out of stereotypical roles -- benefits men more than women.

But, as the second component of this study revealed, this advantage that single-sex education appears to bestow on men is not without costs to women. The researchers discovered that men who went to single-sex high schools were less likely to believe in equality of the sexes than their coeducated peers, a result that the they attribute to "something about the single-sex setting—perhaps direct sexism, exacerbation of 'macho male cultures' in schools, and/or lack of daily exposure to competent female peers in the high school classroom."

As these single-sex-educated men rise to positions of power and influence in their respective fields, their tendency to view women as less than equal will inevitably contribute to the glass ceiling and other forms of discrimination against women in the workplace. I hope school districts and other policy makers will give consideration to this study before jumping on the single-sex education bandwagon.

Citation: Karpiak et al. 2007, University students from single-sex and coeducational high schools: Differences in majors and attitudes at a Catholic university. Psychology of Women Quarterly 31 (3), 282–289.

Via Viva La Feminista and Feminist Law Profs.