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Why girls' schools thrive at single-sex schools

Richard Cairns of Brighton College advocated co-education in our last issue of School House but Helen Fraser, Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), is having none of it, arguing that it’s only in single-sex schools that girls can really be released from stereotypical attitudes.

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Girls’ schools were the obvious choice for my two stepdaughters and two daughters. Their experiences between the ages of five and 18 shaped their characters and helped them to become the adventurous, resilient women that they are today. My own secondary schooling, at a girls’ grammar in Leicester, was also overwhelmingly positive. After a miserable time at a co-ed primary school, with annoying boys around every corner, I suddenly had like-minded girls to talk to and play with – it was bliss by comparison.

It was only when I became Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) – a network of 24 schools and two academies educating 20,000 girls – that I really asked myself the question, ‘Why single-sex?’ I knew that it had worked for me and my family, but I hadn’t given any real thought to the benefit others could gain from the experience. In terms of bringing out the best in individuals, whatever their aptitudes, in my view, a single-sex environment really is second to none.

There is nothing new in the recent comments made by Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, who said that girls in single-sex schools grow up unable to communicate with the opposite sex.

In my personal and professional opinion, single-sex schools enable girls to be girls for longer, without distractions, and without gender stereotyping from staff and peers that can push girls away from subjects that tap into their natural aptitudes. This is particularly notable in A-level subject choices. Last year, 61 per cent of GDST A-level students took one or more science or maths subject. In addition, single-sex schools provide a protected space where young people can deal with the uncertainties of early adolescence and find their identities in their own time.

Girls need the space to make informed, unconstrained choices about interests, subjects and careers and are more likely to assume leadership roles in extra-curricular groups and activities at single-sex schools. They feel empowered to reject gender stereotyping in sports, subject and career choices and show a far greater propensity to choose ‘masculine’ subjects – like maths and physics – and maintain this interest in their future careers.

As recently as the 1970s, high flying young women in the Foreign Office had to resign their jobs if they got married. Although the last 50 years has seen a woman Prime Minister and the first CEO of a FTSE 100 company, Marjorie Scardino, in most careers, women are still under-represented at senior levels.

Most women want to work and deserve creative satisfaction and a sense of achievement. They are able to find ways to navigate doing both, so it is out of date and chauvinistic to call that ‘having it all’.

Yet, do a search online for images of chief executives, surgeons or judges, and you don’t see many women. Do a similar search for images of nurses, child-minders, or personal assistants, and there aren’t many men. These stereotypes permeate our national and global culture, and our children can’t help but absorb them subconsciously.

Consciously, it’s important that we challenge these assumptions from the earliest age. Raising awareness of different jobs enables girls to imagine themselves in a full range of roles, and not to limit their horizons. One of the things we want to do is equip our girls to go out into the world prepared to confront those challenges and to work their way up to leadership.

Women shouldn’t have to compromise their authenticity to progress their careers – likewise, if they are unsuccessful during a job interview, they shouldn’t automatically blame themselves. Being aware of implicit stereotypes can go some way to combating them, as can thorough preparation and research. Providing strong examples of problem solving and leadership skills is a great way to quash stereotypes of female passivity, as is demonstrating self-confidence in the interview.

Job interviews can be daunting enough without the added concern that a male interviewer’s implicit or explicit biases can play a part in the outcome. New research from Rutgers University in the USA discovered that, counter-intuitively, female candidates are particularly disadvantaged when interviewed by men who actively identify themselves as supporters of equality, but, at the same time, implicitly associate women with incompetence. Combine this with some women’s propensity to doubt their own ability and you have a toxic combination of non-progression, which ultimately fuels the gender pay gap.

While we shouldn’t be complacent, there are plenty of positive signs and reasons for optimism. Women are doing better at every educational stage, at first jobs, at first management jobs; and the gender pay gap is slowly closing for the under 40s. If we can keep women in the workplace throughout their 30s, there is a chance that women will start to break the ‘20 per cent of senior positions’ barrier. 