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International Women’s Day: The Single Sex Class Debate

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Does having single sex classes impact women’s participation in STEM subjects? Well there is evidence to support both sides of the debate, but since we live in a world where men are still earning more than women, and women often experience discrimination in the workplace, the case for girls’ schools is compelling.

For instance, the Goodman Research Group found that graduates of girls’ schools are six times more likely to consider studying science, technology or mathematics at post-secondary level as their peers at co-ed schools. Similarly, another study by the University of California discovered all girls’ school graduates were three times more likely to consider engineering as a career.

Girls only schools encourage girls to study STEM subjects and open up opportunities for highly skilled and better paid careers in areas traditionally dominated by men. In learning environments free from gender discrimination girls have the chance to become more confident and assertive, and they can explore what they are passionate about without the pressure or intimidation that comes with sharing classes with boys.

Often in mixed classes – despite feeling confident in their ability – girls are more reserved and reluctant to share ideas in front of the class. Part of the issue comes down to still lacking relatable role models. When asked to describe what a scientist looks like the stereotypical white male in a white lab coat still dominates answers. Girls therefore can’t imagine themselves as a scientist because they don’t see people like them doing it. Being around peers who love science or maths helps to deflect cultural messages that portray women as less capable of successfully studying STEM subjects and helps to build confidence that girls can thrive in these areas.

In an attempt to tackle the low numbers of women in STEM subjects one Glasgow College has introduced a female only engineering course. City of Glasgow College launched the course last year as a pilot to promote gender equality in response to discovering that young women had the skills, ambition and interest in the subject but were put off by the male-dominated educational environment. Already the college has seen a significant increase in enrolments, work placements and have succeeded in raising general awareness of the gender imbalance in each sector.

Despite making up just over half of the population, in the US women only account for 25% of STEM fields and in the UK this figure drops to 17%. So it’s obvious more steps need to be taken to determine how best to encourage women into the subject. Headway is being made with the likes of Girls Who Code and Girls 4 Science, however the aim of any of these programmes should not be to prepare girls to learn or work in a segregated world, rather they should be preparing them to work in any environment with confidence.

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