Talking Gender at Single-Sex Schools

January 15, 2019

Do single-sex schools provide students with the best environment for gender education and discussion of gender-related topics?  Read more to explore the benefits and drawbacks of having these conversations in all-girls’, all-boys’, and coeducational settings, with statements from interviews with students and faculty at Kent Place School and the Delbarton School.

Students from Kent Place School, an all-girls’ school, felt attacked and disrespected after attending a January 2018 diversity conference at the Delbarton School, an all-boys’ school, because some of the male students took aggressive stances when female students shared their experiences with gender.  This was not the intention of the organizers of the event, who wanted to allow female students to voice their perspectives and hope that future conversations will be less combative.  

 

The majority of the students at the conference, both boys and girls, were simply unpracticed in civil discourse in a group setting with those of the opposite sex.  They were reminded that single-sex schools are somewhat of a cultural bubble

 

Students who attend single-sex schools will mostly engage in conversations about gender and feminism with peers of the same sex, if they have those conversations at all.  The various advantages and disadvantages of excluding voices of other genders force one to wonder if a single-sex setting is the most ideal or effective space for gender discussions or if that even matters.

 

Dr. Lydia Barovero, a Kent Place teacher, shares that her Women’s Studies class discusses consciousness-raising, a practice employed by second-wave feminists based on the idea “that it’s important to be in a space with others [of the same gender] who, potentially through talking, openly and safely find points of connection. And by finding those points, they can begin to collaborate and create a sense of solidarity.”

 

Dr. Barovero believes that it is important for students to converse with those with whom they share an identifier, like gender, race, or religion.  Thus, she feels that it is wonderful and necessary to have all-girls’ discussions about gender as a first step, before reaching the ultimate goal of students of all genders discussing together. 

 

Talking about feminism in an all-female environment creates a safe space where students feel comfortable to speak in an honest and genuine way.  Conversations are meaningful, and participants are able to relate to one another.  Several girls describe these settings as “empowering.” 

 

Often in a coeducational environment, boys’ voices take over, and girls find it difficult to share their experiences.  As in any affinity group, many girls seek all-female groups for support and, in a way, freedom.

 

Despite males not being a cultural minority group, all-male conversations about gender can provide the same crucial sense of freedom and security for voicing honest opinions, learning, growing, and listening, particularly for teenage boys. 

 

“[In all-male settings,] they have the chance to speak openly about their experiences and listen to each other,” says Ms. Jenna Gómez, diversity coordinator and moderator for the Diversity Among Peers (DAP) group at Delbarton.  “Unfortunately, but realistically, sometimes it takes another boy speaking up about gender roles or feminism for other boys to understand or really hear them out. This has a lot to do with privilege and then how it is used to create strong allyship.” 

 

Just as it is important for girls to talk about gender with other girls,  it is important for boys to have similarly-themed discussions with other boys.

 

A space for teenage boys to discuss gender, be it all-boys or mixed-gender, is more than essential.  Gender education, feminism, and gender topics are relevant to boys, even though cisgender boys do not face gender-based institutionalized oppression.

 

Interestingly, the three boys interviewed for this article thought that they should have gender education conversations in order to be more informed allies to women or because they care about issues that impact their female family members or friends.  None suggested that any of these issues might affect them directly.  While the women who shared their views supported the notion that boys should engage in these discussions to be better allies, they went further to suggest that feminism also impacts boys directly. 

 

“Feminism isn't only about women.  We need men in the movement as well because feminism can help all genders,” suggests Gabrielle Alpert ‘19, a Women’s Studies student at Kent Place.

 

“Men are often implicitly told they aren’t allowed to step out of the limiting box of stereotypical masculine behavior, and when they do, they are often ostracized or isolated for it,” remarks Grace McGinley ‘20, co-president of Girls Learning and Making a Difference (GLAM’D), Kent Place’s women’s rights and female empowerment club.  “Every human is affected by stigma and social conformity, [so] every human’s voice matters and contributes to the conversation by diversifying the perspectives.”

 

 

Regardless of the benefits of discussing gender without female students, relying on an all-boys’ environment to provide teenage boys with necessary gender education is not sufficient.  According to three Delbarton students, they rarely have conversations about gender or feminism.

 

When the topics are brought up, many students become uncomfortable or close-minded.  According to Elio Rodriguez ‘19, one of the student leaders of DAP at Delbarton, one teacher highlights these topics from time to time, and because the students do not have much experience discussing them, she is often met with quick resistance. 

 

According to Bernardo Stival ‘19, another DAP leader, when conversations do occur naturally, they are one-sided, and students do not try to consider other perspectives, particularly on the topics of abortion, discrimination, and sexual harassment.

 

Some students at Delbarton are happy and willing to have the conversation but find that it is difficult and empty without a female peer’s first-person perspective.

 

“When you're having a conversation about feminism with no female voices involved, it often feels like you're a group of outsiders trying to comment on something you don't have a profound understanding of,” says Juan Hermo ‘19, a Delbarton DAP leader.  “The conversations are almost purely statistics and tend to not go anywhere significant if a conversation is started at all.”

 

All-girls’ conversations on gender are flawed, too.  

 

Keerthi Jayaraman ‘19, a Kent Place student, shared that in her Women’s Studies class, it is easy for the “right” voice to be the only voice that is heard because there are only female students.  Perhaps no voice is necessarily the “right” voice, but in a single-sex environment where the majority of the room has the same opinion on gender, the dominant voice that emerges will be perceived as the correct one.  In order to foster open-mindedness and consider various ideas and experiences, the male voice is necessary in conversations about gender.

 

Furthermore, when the majority of the individuals have the same experiences and the same opinions, those who disagree may not feel comfortable expressing how they feel, according to Jayaraman.  This does not create an ideal environment for growth, for learning, or for broadening perspectives.

 

“We are able to have [fairly] contained conversations, especially with only female voices in the room.  We all pretty much agree with what we are saying[...] Sometimes I wonder how productive the conversations are when all the kids who take the Women’s Studies class are pretty aware of gender issues,” says Jayaraman, who is also co-president of GLAM’D.

 

Then, there is the obvious flaw: all-girls’ environments do not reflect the real world, where many women find themselves as the sole female voice in a room of men.  One must consider if exclusively discussing gender in a single-sex environment truly prepares all girls to articulate their ideas and stand their ground in future situations.

 

Additionally, gender studies and feminism apply to everyone, not just women and men.  A drawback of both all-girls’ and all-boys’ discussions about gender is that it reinforces the false idea of gender as a binary concept and often excludes transgender, gender non-binary, and gender nonconforming voices.  These individuals are often present in so-called single-sex settings, but they may not feel comfortable or safe sharing this aspect of their identity. 

 

“[Students] would benefit a lot from being able to openly have these discussions with peers of a different gender by learning how to listen and opening up their minds to other very real experiences,” says Ms. Gómez.  “It is also important for them to learn how to exchange and share experiences with their [opposite-sex] or gender-non binary peers. It is through personal interaction where the idea of otherness begins to disappear and a true understanding can occur.”

 

The goal is to create coeducational discussion environments where participants are able to feel safe, comfortable, and respected.  This is easier said than done, but students and faculty at both Kent Place and Delbarton are working towards this goal. 

 Student diversity leaders from Delbarton, Kent Place, and more New Jersey independent schools convene on a bright autumn morning to discuss future collaboration with a goal of respectful, thoughtful co-ed discussions.  Photos by Gabrielle Narcisse ‘19

Ultimately, the more voices that are represented and heard, the more progress is made, and the more effective and stimulating a discussion will become.  

 

“No two people experience gender in the exact same way,” says Women’s Studies’ student Amber White ‘19 after interviewing people in the Kent Place community for her and Alpert’s final project.  “Every person we interviewed brought a different perspective or story with them, and while some people discussed common themes, everyone always had [a] different opinion or lived experience.”

 

On that note, it would be inappropriate to ignore the limitations of the various views conveyed in this article.  Only two schools were represented, and only those who have experience in gender-, feminism-, or diversity-related classes or clubs were interviewed.  This may not reflect the average experience. 

 

However, it does reveal that Kent Place students would benefit from leaning in to more coeducational gender discussions.  It might not be comfortable, but diversity work should not always be comfortable.  

 

Faculty and student leaders should work together to create opportunities for coeducational gender dialogue.  In order to create the safest space possible, conversation norms should be established and followed, there should not be a disproportionate amount of students of one gender, and adults should be present and ready to reinforce the norms.

 

These conversations are important, and it is essential to students’ education and growth that they engage in them during their high school years.

 

“Feminism affects everyone. Gender norms affect everyone,” says McGinley.  “Therefore, including [all] voices in conversation in these matters is crucial to the intersectionality of the movement.  Nothing can truly thrive or grow if it’s boxed away in an exclusive community. Society as a whole must come to accept the [character] of the feminist movement to understand that our goals of gender equality and eliminating gender norms benefit everyone.”

 

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