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Women in Paradise?

09 May 2013

Women’s college graduates are better prepared than their coed counterparts in areas like leadership and analytical thinking. They share some key characteristics, including a commitment to service, leadership, and academic excellence. Each offers its own unique brand of education to its students and has a strong network of successful women who stick together and extend a hand to those who follow. (Shanker, 2013)

Exponents of coeducation who tout it as a superior model to an “unnatural” single-sex environment frequently base their reasoning on social imperatives rather than academic outcomes. They argue, perhaps flippantly, that our world is a coed environment for both men and women alike, and that the only societal segregation of sexes occurs in rest rooms, prisons, monasteries and some schools and colleges. However, they are merely observing that we coexist. Unfortunately, they also believe that a coed environment is coequal. Susan Pinker, in her book The Sexual Paradox, argues that while women need to be treated as equal to men, they are not identical to men. Therefore, a case for separate, specialised approaches and programs for women, and indeed men, in education and the work-force are needed.

The coed term is problematic generally, not just in the underlying assumption that a coed environment is somehow also coequal. In the United States a “coed” is defined as a woman who attends a coeducational college or university. Why does the term refer to just the women and not the male students as well? The implication is that the environment is for men and that women are invited to attend as co-participants. The world is still a long way from being coequal. For example, in Australia women comprise only a small percentage of board directors in the top 200 companies; women’s pay relative to men’s still shows a salary gap in spite of the long-running feminist movement’s “equal pay for equal work” initiatives; women have a disproportionate responsibility for children and the aged; and women are under-represented in the top leadership positions in government, tertiary institutions and companies. In spite of young women succeeding in greater numbers and with better outcomes than young men at school and university, they often find that in their careers and public life, subtle and overt discrimination still occurs. On a number of levels there are compelling arguments to promote women-only university colleges in the twenty-first century to help address these inequities.
Young women often cite a lack of identification with feminism and that leaves those of us who recall the 1970s and the achievements of the Women’s Liberation Movement somewhat despondent. Feminism with its concern for gender equality and human rights is still very relevant today — both
here in Australia and world-wide.

When the F-Word: Feminism Forum was held at the Sydney Opera House in March last year, global feminism and its future was on the agenda. Naomi Wolf posited that the ideals of The Enlightenment, where universal human rights were core, could be a new way for feminism to find relevance once again. The concern for the plight of women and girls, their self-confidence, autonomy and right to be the person they wished to become without threat to personal safety or discrimination, was profiled at the Forum, but what was missing from the debate was the pivotal role that access to education and the right educational environment plays in any girl’s or woman’s achievement of self-advocacy and equality. Education in most developed countries is a fundamental right, but the quality and effectiveness of the education available may not be optimal or the best it can be. There is a view that separating girls and boys for the purposes of education does not reflect the real world where men and women coexist and where conditioning young people to a single-sex environment is treated suspiciously and argued against as unhelpful for socialisation. Segregation for any reason is a complex matter and historically has been a result of cultural traditions, religious tenets, race and power structures. For any segregation based on gender there must be positive benefits, not political advantage, and education is one of the areas where segregation can hold positive credence.

We now know that investing in the education of all women and especially those in developing countries has exponential benefits. Michelle Bachelet Executive Director of UN Women observed that “women put ninety per cent of their income back into their families and the well‐being of their children. And we know that a child born to a mother who can read is fifty per cent more likely to survive past the age of five” (2012). Owing to the governments and religious imperatives in many developing countries, the education of girls and women by necessity is in a single-sex environment for reasons of religion and safety. Segregation of the sexes in this context makes fundamental sense, but the idea of single-sex education, and indeed residency, is still hotly debated as necessary, or even warranted, in many countries where equal access is standard.

Many studies report that girls do better in single sex classes in secondary school─they are more confident in discussion, select more challenging subjects, take more risks with their learning, are more competitive and achieve higher comparable grades than girls in co-educational schools─and indeed as a generalisation girls perform better than boys in both contexts on most standardised measures (Alliance of Girls’ Schools). As young women entering the tertiary sector look towards a future of either further study, employment, or both, it is timely to consider the strengths of single-sex contexts for young women at university.

The University of Essex has recently published research which suggests that young women perform better at university when taught in single-sex classes:
Dr Patrick Nolen and Professor Alison Booth divided 800 first-year undergraduates into three groups for introductory courses in economics. At the end of the year, the average member of the girls-only group did 7.5 per cent better on her exams than those in the other groups. (Andrews, 2011)

This has implications for women undertaking university study and for tertiary residential colleges. If young women do better academically in single-sex environments in the tertiary context, then it could be advantageous for them to think strategically about their university tutorial compositions, group work dynamics and residential college designations to maximise their potential outcomes. A subsequent study investigating positive benefits of single-sex education in a coeducational university environment found that in addition to academic benefits, there was a reduction in stereotype threat (Booth, Cardona-Sosa & Nolen, 2013).

At the Women’s College here within the University of Sydney, for example, the tailored and extensive tutorial, mentoring and intern programs add tremendous value to the students’ university experience in more ways than enhanced academic results. They have access to leadership programs, workshops, training sessions and career development opportunities delivered by corporate women and men. In relation to confidence and achievement, Booth and Nolen (2009) found evidence to suggest that young women seem to be shying away from competition, except in single-sex environments. Other implications of their study suggest that single-sex education for young women can affect economically important preferences. While there might be other advantages to coeducation─not least in terms of socialising women and men and preparing them for mixed-gender workplaces─their analysis does serve to illustrate the importance of the single-sex environment in affecting real economic outcomes through behavioural responses. For example, the differences in competitive behaviour they observed in young women could well have effects on future pay-negotiation skills and remuneration (Booth & Nolen, 2009).

Last year, women working full-time in Australia earn approximately 17.5% less than their male counterparts. No mother or father wants their daughter being disadvantaged economically or treated inequitably in the workplace. Their daughters, our young women, need the understanding and skills to be able to manage their own nuanced career negotiations. Moreover, Ged Kearney (2012) writes that, in addition to young women having the confidence to negotiate successfully, “women often talk about feeling invisible in the workplace, about being overlooked for senior roles. They need to be more assertive”. If, as the research shows, the environment of a single-sex educational context—such as The Women’s College—can help foster confidence, collaboration and competitiveness in young women, then by extrapolation they should be better placed to negotiate and secure opportunities, remuneration, conditions and promotion in their careers.
Booth and Kee (2010) found that there would continue to be a gender gap in favour of women enrolled in higher education. They concluded that this was in part because of a growth in white collar and service sector jobs and the increasing prevalence of women engaged in paid work outside the home. An additional factor was the increasing financial burden for Australian families in the home mortgage market, demanding more than one income to support the household (Booth & Kee, 2010).

In Australia about 60% of university undergraduates are women and more than 40% of young women hold a bachelors degree or higher qualification compared to 30% of young men. This should translate into successful and advantaged remuneration and careers, but as yet this does not seem to be the case. According to Graduate Careers Australia, the starting salaries of female graduates aged under 25 averaged $50,000 last year, compared with $52,000 for men (Trounson, 2012). Therefore the pay gap exists before family commitments and mortgages come into the equation. Women and men, educators and parents, need to support young women to have the confidence to negotiate and to know what is fair and equitable. Young women need to recognise the contexts that will position them for success and look to people to support them: mentors—both women and men—who can guide, sponsor and encourage them in their personal and professional growth.

There are many avenues in research and statistical data to explore the historical and contemporary inequities that exist for girls and women. The purpose here is to highlight the local and global economic importance of education for girls and young women specifically in a single-sex environment like The Women’s College. For developing countries, the health and well-being of children and the improvement of overall economic prosperity is dependent upon girls and women having equitable and safe access to education—a basic human right.

For countries like Australia, where access to education is an expectation, it is rather the appreciation of the availability of the right type of educational environment that will empower girls and women to position themselves confidently for success and the expectation of equality in life. The weight of available evidence shows that single-sex contexts can provide the competitive and economic edge for them above and beyond the known academic benefits. We look forward to a world where this tailored and targeted educational choice, with its inherent advantages, are available to all girls and young women—regardless of nationality, religion or socio-economic status.

Dr Amanda Bell
27 March, 2013