THE BLOG
07/08/2014 12:40 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

Single-Sex Classrooms Are on the Front Line in the Fight for Gender Equality

We're a society that talks with great frequency about gender inequality, but does little to combat it. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama lamented unequal salaries, noting than women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. "That's an embarrassment," he said. "It is wrong." Likewise, the lack of women in STEM (females earn 20 percent of bachelors degrees in engineering) and top-level executive positions (women are 4.8 percent of CEO's) are points of much contention. "If only people would stop being so discriminatory, everything would be okay," our leaders seem to imply.

They're right about one thing. Outright sexism should never be tolerated. But even if feminists eradicate overt discrimination, the gender gap will persist. That's because the root cause of gender inequality is a set of patriarchal norms that define our perception of gender, which begins in early childhood. These perceptions help shape our lives in fundamental ways that may not be entirely obvious. Undermining gendered norms that undermine female success will empower women to close the gender gap. It should be a priority -- and right now, it isn't.

The reason that no one wants to talk about gender roles, especially not our political leaders, is because you can't simply pass a law to correct them and there's no one to wag your finger at in self-righteous indignation. Gendering is a natural process, and its one we hardly notice. Gendering happens at home -- where parents are less likely to expect their daughters to excel in math/science, more likely to expect their sons to be aggressive, and believe that their daughters are emotional. As children grow up, they fulfill their parents' expectations and thereby create an unequal reality. Girls empirically underperform in math, boys are more aggressive, and girls are more emotional. To break this cycle, feminists need to make undermining debilitating gender norms their "ground zero."

First, they need to address parenting. Of course, that's easier said than done. The best we can do is educate parents and hope they will check their prejudices and recognize their own preconceived notions about gender in order to combat them. Schools are an easier fix, however, because they allow for macro-level impacts. David Cohen for Indiana Law Journal explains the gendering effect of schools. "A school that associates boys with sports and action-based reading preferences is setting up its division of labor. A school that expects boys to have difficulty expressing emotions and feelings contributes to that pattern of emotion," he writes. Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that teachers expect male students to be more analytical, answer more questions, and be more assertive. Girls are expected to be to be "cooperative and expressive." So even if parents are the first to associate their children with specific gender roles, its schools that reinforce them on a daily basis.

Low parental and institutional expectations can create a "crisis of confidence," according to the DailyMail. In Brittan, a survey showed that 41 percent of British girls believe they are not good at math, compared to just 24 percent of boys. Eventually, many girls chose to pursue other areas of study where they may feel more confortable and accepted. By the time students reach high school the impacts are significant. At my high school, the male to female ratio is 4:1 in AP Physics C, 2:1 in AP Computer Science, and 1.5:1 in Calculus BC. My classrooms aren't outliers. According to US News, nationwide boys outnumber girls by 4:1 in AP Computer Science, 2.5:1 on AP Physics C, and 1.5:1 on Calculus BC.

The research on whether or not single-sex classrooms may offer girls a more enriching an environment than they currently receive in co-ed classrooms is conflicted. On the one hand, single-sex schools improve girls' confidence. The British Educational Research Journal found that eighty percent of girls claimed to be more confident in single-sex classes, 65 percent indicating progress in math. University of Pennsylvania Professor Choi, found that in South Korea, single-sex classrooms are associated with female empowerment and better performance in school He writes, "Girls in a single-sex classroom had a sense of ownership of their class, but did not in coed classrooms." On the other hand, opponents of single-sex classrooms claim that by consciously distinguishing between males and females, single-sex schools further entrench gender roles. In fact, the ACLU is suing the justice department, arguing that single-gender classes are "separate and unequal."

Nonetheless, the empirical evidence does seem to favor single-sex schools, especially those built in urban, at-risk communities. The European Society for Engineering Education finds that while only 22 percent of girls go to single-gender schools, 40 percent of the women in engineering schools went to single-gender schools. Single-sex classroom help reduce distractions, according to the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy, which found that suspensions decreased by 93 percent and disciplinary action by 70 percent. Overall, the impact is better performance in school. When Manchester University randomly assigned students to single-sex and coed classrooms, it found that 89 percent of girls in single-sex classrooms passed the test at the end of the unit, as compared with 48 in coed.

Parents and educators have noticed the results. More than 500 public schools now have single-sex classrooms. Eighty percent of teachers report increased or improved desire to succeed in single-sex classrooms and eighty-four percent report more autonomous learning. Expect to see more single-gender classrooms in years to come.

This is a trend we should welcome. Coed classrooms may appear benign, but they're not. They teach girls to be passive and help solidify gender roles that prevent women from achieving full equality. While singe-sex education may not be appropriate for everyone, it's certainly a step toward empowerment for many girls today.

Here's to a sexual revolution in the making.