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Do All-Girls Schools Breed Feminists or Mean Girls?

Dec 18, 2013
TIME Health
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A new study has found that girls at same-sex schools feel greater pressure to adhere to gender norms — and were bullied if they didn’t — than those at mixed-gender schools. Perhaps even more surprising, the same researchers say that girls at same-sex schools evaluated their self-worth based more on social confidence than cognitive confidence — while girls at mixed-gender schools weighed academics more heavily than social prowess.

These results contradict a lot of the conventional wisdom that compels some parents to seek out an environment without boys — namely, less romantic drama, greater social acceptance and increased academic confidence. So which is it: Are girls more likely to empower one another or to make Burn Book–worthy comments about those who don't fit in like in Mean Girls? To find out, we asked the experts.

Some feminists would argue that in the middle-school years (the girls in this study were fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders), boys pressure girls to fulfill certain gender norms. But William M. Bukowski, one of the researchers in the girls-school study and the director for the Center of Research in Human Development at Concordia University in Montreal, argues that boys aren’t imposing stereotypes on girls — girls are imposing stereotypes on each other. “It’s called the social-dosage hypothesis,” Bukowski says. “When girls are together without the presence of boys, they’re going to get an extra-strong dose of what it is to be female.” Hence, girls at the same-sex school feel more pressure to be "girly." Why those same girls might value their social competence over their academic competence Bukowski couldn’t explain.

“I was quite surprised by the results,” he says. “But do I think that these result would generalize to schools in North America? I do.”

Other experts disagree.

(MORE: Ew, Boys: The Brewing Legal Battle Over Same-Sex Education)

Overwhelmingly, past studies and anecdotal evidence have suggested that all-girls schools at the very least empower young women academically. A 2005 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education called Single-Sex Versus Coeducational Schooling: A Systematic Review says, “A majority of studies supported the position that single-sex schools resulted in higher academic aspirations as evidenced by students more interested in and taking more difficult courses.”

This is especially true for all-girls schools when it comes to promoting the sciences. “All-girls schools tend to give girls better access to physical materials where there’s building going on and support girls in nontraditional fields,” says Lisa Damour, director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Ohio. She points to the British school system where girls coming out of single-sex schools were two and a half times more likely to take Physics A-Levels (kind of like British versions of AP tests, except all students must choose a handful to take) than girls graduating from coed schools.

Given these impressive academic results, it seems strange that girls at all-girls schools would value social competence over cognition and play into other gender stereotypes. “My first thought was, ‘How is this possible?’” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, a book about girls' social hierarchies. “In my experience, there’s a cultural value perpetuated in most all-girls schools that we’re going to confront, combat and challenge gender expectations.”

She believes that if the study had been conducted in the U.S., not Colombia, the results would be different. “In cultures where gender and gender expectations are very stratified, expectations are also stratified and rigid,” Wiseman says. “All-girls schools in the United States have done a lot to combat these expectations and stereotypes. They’ve undergone a tremendous transformation in the last 20 years in order to stay relevant and survive. They stopped being finishing schools and became this place of opportunity for female empowerment.”

(MORE: Do Mothers Hamper Their Daughters in Math?)

Anecdotally, Barbara Wagner, head of Marlborough School in Los Angeles, says that she feels her all-girls school allows girls to forget about gender norms. “The girls will say we don’t have to worry what we look like when we get up in the morning. And then they’ll laugh about that,” says Wagner. “They’ll say we don’t have to look good for someone else. The girls who wear makeup to school — it’s more noticeable here. Girls show up pretty natural and pride themselves on how little time it take them to get ready before they come to school.” Damour also says that the girls she has met and worked with in same-sex schools across the country tend to feel empowered, not pigeonholed.

The study's researchers chose Colombia because the all-girls schools there tend to attract a less elevated socioeconomic demographic than those in the U.S. “Typically in Colombia, girls go to an all-girls school because it happens to be the one down the street from them, not because it’s a prestige school or a religious school,” Bukowski explains.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that Colombia's same-sex schools are more reflective of world norms than those in the U.S. Damour points out that the very next study in the research journal Sex Roles in which the Colombia article was published is one from Turkey that found girls in single-sex schools had more egalitarian attitudes toward family roles than coed students. (A similar study published in 1990 in the U.S. found that girls educated in single-sex schools were more likely to endorse less stereotyped views of gender roles in their college years.)

Clearly researchers cannot make any sweeping generalizations about girls schools across the world or even within one country. It's more likely that teachers, parents and the media are defining gender-norms for girls more than their peers are in schools. “The only time I’ve seen [girls rank social competence above academic competence] in my experience is when the adults in the community are somehow giving the message that it’s more important to be socially powerful,” says Wiseman.

(MORE: ‘Girls Who Code’ Looks to Close the Tech Gender Gap)

Yet what little data we do have on the effects of separating girls and boys indicates that girl-only groups would allow for greater diversity in identity. Studies of preschoolers have found that girls are more likely to play with “boy” toys when boys aren’t present. As Damour puts it, all-girls schools often allow for more versions of what it means to be a girl. "In an all-girls setting, girls spread out into some of the space that's otherwise taken up by boys at school. In the classroom they are louder and more expressive."

In fact, girls’ social aggression often stems from competition for boys. A study highlighted in the New York Times in November indicated that female college students were more passive-aggressive toward another woman when she was dressed suggestively. That's going to be true whether girls attend same-sex or mixed-gender schools.

So until we can found our own Amazonian island completely devoid of men, there will always be mean girls.

MORE: How to Bully-Proof Young Girls

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