Co-ed schools perpetuate out-dated sexual attitudes

Co-ed schools perpetuate out-dated sexual attitudes

According to the state’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, “shocking levels of sexism and gender stereotyping remain rampant in South Australian schools”.

Commissioner Helen Connolly says some of the views shared with her by youngsters for a new report on the topic were “distressingly familiar to what you would hear in 1975”.

The research, conducted by the office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, involving interviews with hundreds of schoolchildren aged 11 to 19, revealed sexism and gender stereotyping remains prevalent in modern classrooms.

This is an issue by no means limited to South Australian co-ed schools.

An Australian study found that girls experience significantly higher rates of sex-based harassment in co-ed schools. As sexual bullying is known to be especially damaging to girls, the Flinders University study adds to the already strong case for educating students in girls-only environments.

Adjunct Professor Roslyn Shute’s research establishes that boy-to-girl harassment is the most frequent type of sex-based harassment in co-educational schools. Boys are far more likely than girls to be the perpetrators of sexually-toned bullying – victimising mainly girls –and, to a lesser extent, gender nonconforming boys. Shute suggests that single-sex schooling could be one way to address the sex-based harassment of girls.

Shute’s findings are supported by evidence from a UK study which found that sexist language is often dismissed by teachers as ‘harmless banter’ in co-ed schools, although many girls view it as harmful and distressing bullying. Even more concerningly, a British parliamentary inquiry found that girls in co-ed high schools are subjected to daily sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual touching and sexting.

Studies that have looked closely at bullying in schools have made comparable findings. An analysis of Australian and New Zealand data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) clearly demonstrates that the incidence of bullying of girls in single-sex schools is markedly lower than for girls in co-educational schools. Overseas, an American study found that less than one per cent of girls in single-sex schools experience bullying, compared with 21 per cent in co-ed schools.

In light of these findings, and the allegations of sexism, sexual assault and harassment emerging from school-aged girls across Australia, the suggestion that co-ed schools simply need to separate genders for a few classes here and there is certainly not a solution.

The notion that a single-sex class can replicate a single-sex campus fails to understand the positive impact of a learning environment tailored specifically to girls’ learning needs.

Girls fare better in girls’ school, not only because they offer a safe space from gender stereotypes and sexual harassment while engaged in learning, but also because of the absence of gendered social pressures in the broader single-sex campus.

Unconscious stereotyping and biases often exist in co-educational schools, from teachers encouraging boys to take STEM subjects – while girls are directed to the humanities – to the reinforcement of girls as soft and caring, and boys as fierce or unruly. 

Research also shows that girls at co-ed schools are less confident and have lower self-esteem and body image issues.

In the preamble of the Commissioner’s report, where she detailed key findings, Connolly wrote that not only do “sexism and gender stereotyping lie at the heart of gender inequality”, but they also “undermine girls’ confidence and self-worth”.

She warned they “distort interactions and relationships between girls and boys in ways that are unhealthy, negatively impacting on the health, safety, confidence and wellbeing” of all students.

Conversely, research conducted by University of Queensland’s Terry Fitzsimmons, for the Australian Gender Equality Council, found that in single-sex schools, girls and boys have equal levels of confidence and self-worth – suggesting an absence of the gender stereotyping in single-sex schools that erodes girls’ confidence.

These gender stereotypes were described in Ms Connolly’s report, with girls describing constant pressure “to send ‘sexts’ to boys.

Ms Connolly also said “girls explained how teachers use female students to moderate and monitor the behaviour of boys”.

The comments from students interviewed as part of her research offer frightening insight into the serious gender stereotyping and sexism issues faced by co-educational students.

It is therefore not difficult to see how such a co-educational school culture – where girls are viewed primarily as sexual objects and conquests, while teachers often dismiss sexual harassment of girls as ‘boys just being boys’ – can lead to normalisation a lack of respect for girls.

Australian and international research confirms the findings of the Commissioner’s office, that a co-educational environment brings more sexual harassment into the classroom, not less – and does not create a safe and equal learning environment for girls.

And in the words of Commissioner Helen Connolly as she introduced her office’s full report, “it would also be remiss not to address the issues identified by children and young people themselves, and the role they say school plays in promoting and reinforcing sexist ideas, attitudes and behaviours” – and the responsibility belongs to us all.

Of course, there are educators and students who are working hard to change the culture of entitlement and sexism perpetuated in co-educational schools. These campaigners believe that we need women, as well as men, represented in leadership roles, in every profession, and in every workplace, but without a holistic societal approach to gender equality, change seems unlikely any time soon.

While societal changes inch along at a glacial pace, we believe the option of single-sex schooling is vital to empower THIS generation of young women.

This comment from a student who participated in Ms Connolly’s research reinforces that we need to use every tool at our disposal in the long fight ahead for a gender equal society.

“Everybody will tell me these days that gender doesn’t make a difference anymore. Then they’ll buy me pink clothes, give me some Barbies, and ask me if I want to be a nurse. It isn’t anybody’s fault, it’s the society we are brought up in.” – Female, 12

 Loren Bridge is the Executive Officer of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia