Single Sex Education: A Road to Empowerment or Increased Oppression?
I have written previously about the potential and power of single sex education. Educating Gender examined the work of long time head of school Barbara Wagner and her work transforming The Marlbough School in Los Angeles from a school that happened to be single sex into a school whose faculty and staff and leadership worked to shape an education meant to empower young women. (See: Barbara Wagner and “Macho” Education.)
Evidence from several studies conducted comparing the impact and effects of single sex educational environments and mixed gender schools indicates that the same biases and gender stereotypes can exist in either worlds as long as faculty and staff lack training in this critical area of human and therefore learner development. The message is clear: gender equity and fairness in schools is a professional concern best addressed through faculty professional development.
But what if single sex education is meant to accomplish a very different purpose? What if single sex education is actually about a very different type of education?
An example of this issue is found in the educational reforms that have been taking place in Turkey over the past decade. Religious segments of the population argued that one of the reasons they did not send their children, particularly girls, to school past the elementary years had to do with the religious scarf ban, the hijab. which was part of the fiercely secularist tenants of the early state. In an attempt to make it easier for devout Muslim girls to extend their formal education, the ban was lifted. The lifting of the ban also coincided with the rise of the AKP party in Turkey which has pushed the agenda for a Muslim Turkey.
The message is clear: gender equity and fairness in schools is a professional concern best addressed through faculty professional development.
Turkey’s 4+ program was an attempt by reformers to make it easier for all children to attend school beyond elementary school.* (See reference Below) One of the misguided assumptions was that the extension of years for female education also meant an acknowledgement of gender inequalities which could be rectified through further education. The results however, have been quite different.
The religious parties and communities also demanded that the education of their girls be placed into the hands of iman hatip schools (religious schools) and that these schools be single sex educational environments. New middle schools and high schools were created in the religious system to accommodate the needs of these girls. But what needs to be said is that these schools, rather than providing new educational opportunities for young women and opening up their options to be active and engaged members of Turkish society, have merely reinforced very strict hegemonic understandings of a woman’s role and place. In fact, a study done to track Turkish women through their post secondary education indicates that the longer they stay within the religious system, the narrower they perceive their professional and potential economic options leading to independence. Only a few limited traditional fields eventually appear to be for them, mostly centered around child care.** (See reference Below)
The error of the 4+ initiative is quite clear. It mistakens time spent in school as some measure of greater educational and therefore societal opportunities. “...the central concern to get more girls into schools, with no concern for the quality of education, the school curriculum (except the presence of religious content), the types of female identities or gendered structures being developed, hierarchal and sexist relations or pedagogies within the school, girls’ schooling experiences, or gender relations within and outside schools.”* (See reference Below)
...what needs to be said is that these schools, rather than providing new educational opportunities for young women and opening up their options to be active and engaged members of Turkish society, have merely reinforced very strict hegemonic understandings of a woman’s role and place.
The broader assumption is also that by creating single sex educational environments, these schools will then, by magical default, create graduates who have a sense of empowerment and who desire to be treated with justice and equality in all realms of society. This is the fallacy of greater educational attainment in general and the power of single sex education in specific. What schools do with students, how teachers speak to students, how students experience their interactions and curricula have a much greater chance of impacting issues of gender bias and equality than whether a school is single sex or not.
One educational leader I spoke with, who runs an extremely traditional and conservative all girls Jewish high school, told me that he wished he could just do away with his honors and AP level classes. He was resoundingly clear that these educational experiences were there to please a small contingent of his parent body, but which “got in the way of the true mission of the school.” The clear and very transparent mission of the school was to create women who saw themselves and their futures as secondary to the needs of their husbands and they were primarily in charge of raising children. This head of school was at least being honest and candid about how he saw the framing of his all girls’ environment.
Single sex education, or any type of educational for that matter, serves whatever purpose adults want it to serve. Intentionality matters.
*Cin, F.M., Karlidag-Dennis, E., Temiz, Z. 2020 “Capabilities-based Gender Equality Analysis of Educational Policy-making and Reform in Turkey” Gender and Education 32 (2): 245-259.
**Alniack, A. Goksen, F. & Yukseker, D. 2019. “School to Work or School to Home? An Analysis of Women’s Vocational Education in Turkey as a Path to Employment”. Gender and Education. 31 (8) 1040-1056.