Single-Sex education will not bridge the STEM gap

Students in a STEM class look to put together an invention. A recent polled showed an increased gender gap in STEM fields. (US Army Corps of Engineering/Flickr, Creative Commons)

To the average person, news of a massive gender gap in STEM-related fields would likely be unsurprising. A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that in 2014, 81 percent of Bachelor’s degrees in engineering were obtained by male graduates, while 19 percent of degrees were received by female graduates. Similarly, computer sciences saw a gap of 82 percent to 18 percent between males and females, and physical sciences were divided into 61 percent male and 39 percent female, while females dominate fields in the social sciences. This report, just one in a series of similar studies, is hardly news, and it seems that Americans are well aware of the gender gap. The question now is how to shift the balance toward equal representation.

While numerous methods have been proposed to increase the population of females in STEM fields, one notable trend is the opening of all-girls public magnet schools that specialize in STEM education. Take, as a recent example, the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) that opened this year in Los Angeles. According to a report from The Atlantic, GALA, which is the Los Angeles Unified School District’s first public school for girls, is attempting to encourage middle and high school girls to pursue STEM fields in a single-sex environment. However, even though the trend toward schools like GALA shows a shift in much-needed attention toward the STEM gender gap, single-sex education is not the solution that this problem demands.

The argument for separating males and females at such a young age is so that attention can be directed toward empowering females in an environment in which girls do not feel pressured to conform to typically “female” fields of study. This argument is severely flawed because, as Diane Halpern, professor emerita of psychology at Claremont McKenna College and co-author of “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” told The Atlantic, “We can empower girls to get more interested in STEM in co-ed schools. We don’t need single-sex schools to do this.”

Halpern brings up an important point. To educate girls in a different environment where they can work solely with people of their own gender is impractical. While educators at single-sex schools can more easily tailor their teaching toward encouraging girls to pursue STEM fields, another important part of the classroom experience is social interaction. Girls studying technical fields will inevitably have to work with males in the workforce, if not in higher education. Yes, these interactions can happen outside of school, but as the American education system currently operates, working with classmates is the most similar experience children have to working with coworkers. Thus, girls need to be empowered in a co-educational environment to be most prepared to work in their fields.

So far, our efforts have been misguided, directed toward the institutions of education rather than the method of education. But the fact is, sorting students into separate schools will only scrape the surface of the issue. Even if teachers at schools like GALA can direct their teaching methods more toward girls, it will still be the case that not all girls learn or become engaged in a subject in the same way. To divide teaching into female-oriented and male-oriented methods is an oversimplification that ignores the fact that all students are individuals, and that they all learn differently. Therefore, the focus must instead be on how educators can effectively teach STEM subjects in a way that is inclusive and engaging for all boys, girls, and most importantly, all individuals.

I understand that single-sex schools can be effective, and that there are numerous studies that have addressed this. However, it is not the place of a single-sex school to empower females to pursue STEM fields, because this ignores the deeper issue that we have fundamentally different expectations for the careers that males and females should choose. Separating girls and boys into different schools will just perpetuate the divisions in their expectations for each other. Instead, they must be taught that any individual can be interested in a STEM field from an early age. Only then can we hope to begin dissolving the academic gender roles we have put in place for them.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.