Gendered Discourse: In Defense of the All-Girl School

Sophia College

This week finds me in my home town of Bombay, and tomorrow, I will spend the day with one of my oldest, and dearest friends. We met in second grade–my first year at the “Big-girl” school–and have remained fast friends ever since.

When I tell people that I went an all-girl school, that I have, in fact, always attended all-girl schools (even in college)–their reaction is usually one of pity, as if I had missed out on some great universal experience. Oh you poor thing! All girls? Really? Wasn’t that one big lesbian fest? Maybe, but I didn’t get invited to that party.

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My experience was characterized, instead, by a lot of openness, camaraderie, women being loud and uninhibited in their opinions, their dress, and sense of self, and a sense of great peace and freedom: I didn’t have to impress the boys.

At least not at school . . . in Organic Chem . . . or French . . . where desire exceeded skill, resulting in sentences made up entirely of nouns and infinitive verbs, but delivered with great assurance, nonetheless.

See, the thing is I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I sounded like a doofus. I didn’t care that I was failing math. And I certainly didn’t care if I looked cute.

Most days, I rolled out of bed at quarter to eight in last night’s jeans and T-shirt, threw on a lab coat, and flew into class just in time for roll-call . . . Parikh, Patel, Pocha . . . .

Being amongst all women, learning amongst all women was liberating! I could ask obvious questions; I could speculate; I could challenge well-established theories (or at least I could try); I could debate my classmates; I could say, “I don’t know;” and all of this without the fear of feeling stupid, or crazy, or, perhaps the worst crime of all, sounding “strident.”

My gender was separate from my intellect, no more or less a player in my identity than say the ability to sing or run a marathon. At school, nobody told me I couldn’t take to the stage. Nobody told me I couldn’t race. And nobody ever told me I couldn’t major in a hard science. I didn’t get the memo.

I was in a sea of memo-less women. Women bent over their books and bunsen burners with equal focus and concentration as when they leaned into the mirror to perfect their eyeliner later that day, in preparation for a night on the town.

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I was with people who could do both–be smart and attractive–on our own terms and on our own schedules.

I didn’t have to wake up an hour early to “do my hair” before class; nor did I have to “tone it down” when debating a point of contention–nobody was paying attention. I didn’t have to compete for floor time or the male gaze (Sigh! The things I have missed from not having gone to a co-ed school!). I didn’t have to equivocate or hedge or apologize or qualify. I could try on an idea for size, throw it out there, and if it didn’t work, or was just plain wrong, I simply shrugged my shoulders and spoke again.

This is what my all-girl schooling gave me.

I know this because research tells us that women are socialized to speak and listen and participate in discourse in ways that are quite different from men. Katherine (Baldiga) Coffman, Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School, notes that when asked a question, men are consistently willing to guess even when they are unsure of an answer, whereas women are more likely to say they don’t know, unless they are really sure of the answer. It appears that women are afraid to speculate for fear of some sort of punishment, be it in the form of social ridicule (she’s dumb) or (and this is my interpretation) social sanction (how dare she!) or an actual penalty such as lost points on a test. Men, by contrast, seem to have been encouraged to speculate and seem not to fear any sanction for doing so.

Coffman formalized her study by conducting an experiment in which she gave both men and women SAT-type math questions in a format where test-takers get one point for a correct answer, a quarter-point-deduction for an incorrect answer, and zero points for skipping the question. She found that when there were penalties for wrong answers, women were twice as likely to skip questions as were men. However, when these penalties for wrong answers were removed, women were just as likely to take a guess at the questions they weren’t sure of (or at least just as likely to answer every question) as were men.

Interesting, right?

Women, certainly those in school environments and, perhaps, most especially in co-educational school environments, are discouraged from the very kinds of intellectual play and risk-taking that enables learning–deep learning.

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Now I realize we have made great strides in educational access and inclusion for women (yeah, yeah, I know, women outnumber men in higher education!), but have we really made an impact on women’s ability to learn and participate in these environments in ways that are free and equal?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Meghan Sumner and Ed King, professors of Linguistics at Stanford University, conducted an experiment where they had “average American listeners” listen to two speakers, one male and one female, speaking the same word, for instance, the word “academy.” She then asked the listeners, both male and female to say the first word that popped into their minds when they heard the word spoken (a simple word association test). Here’s what she found:

When the listeners, be they male or female, heard the word “academy” spoken by a male voice, the first word that popped into their heads was “school” or some sort of variant of school. But when the listeners, again both male and female, heard the word “academy” spoken by a female voice, the first word that popped into their heads was “award” (as in “Academy Award).

Weird, right?

We expect that women are more likely to be talking about Hollywood than about school. Sumner thus concludes that “our unconscious stereotyping influences how we listen.” In other words, we process language differently based on whether a man or woman is doing the speaking.


How could this sort of “gendered listening” not have an impact on learning, on anything, really? As Iris Bohnet, economist, suggests, it is much harder for women to speak up, to assert themselves (in the classroom or business place) as it violates gender norms. We know this, don’t we? When men speak assertively, they are perceived to be strong, confident, trustworthy, even. But when women do so, we are just, well, that special word again–“strident.”

We know this, don’t we? So what’s my point?

Just this: There may be some value in holding women, young women, in a safe space, so that they can grow and explore and just be themselves for a while. There may be some value in shielding them from the intellectual stereotyping that has such a strong hold in the mainstream classroom. There may be some value in fostering positive, cooperative, non-competitive relationships amongst women, the kinds of relationships that often grow organically and spontaneously in the absence of men. And maybe, just maybe, the all-girl school is a good place to start.

Categories: Reflections

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