Does Co-education Work for Women?

by Doris O'Keefe

    It is erroneous to think that women have equal access to opportunity and employment or that they may now even have a slight edge over men through affirmative action programs. In his opening address at the 1982 "Conference on Sexual Equality in the Workplace," Charles Caccia, then Federal Minister of Labor, confirmed what many feminists already knew: sexual inequality still persists in Canada; women account for 40 per cent of the labor force but earn only 58 per cent of what men earn; women continue to be concentrated in a few employment categories and most women work because they must.( l )

     Ken Battle, executive director of the National Welfare Council, believes that women are poor primarily because they earn low wages. He blames lack of equal opportunity and pay equity for women's plight and argues that their employment remains segregated and consequently, they are as vulnerable as ever to poverty.(2)

     Women and Welfare, a report by the National Council of Welfare, states that female poverty is a direct result of the widely held assumption that women are taken care of by men, and that the "culture of poverty theory" explains little about Canadian poverty. The fact that women are socialized to expect a male provider is put forth as the real "cause" of female poverty. Then women are told they must fend for themselves and their families financially when the male fails to provide, leaves or dies. Women are often unprepared for this challenge. (3)

     It is evident that the myth that one's prince will come (and stay), has been costly for women.

    To understand the position of women in society one must analyze the impact of education on them. The majority of Canadian educational institutions, elementary, secondary, and post-secondary, are now co-educational. The move from sex-segregated schooling was heralded as an important reform by those committed to equality of the sexes, and today it is considered both normal and natural.

    This was not always the case. In 1932 Pauline Benning, a graduate student at McGill, submitted a thesis entitled, "The Question of Sex Differentiation in Education" in which she presented arguments for co-education, a concept that was at that time controversial. (4)

    Feminists like Benning expected co-education to solve many societal problems including those of women. She expected co-education to bring out "the best of both sexes." She hypothesized that integration in the schools would lead to a more complete emotional development for both sexes and would offer students a firmer grip on reality. She also criticized single-sex schools for being poor at preparing young women for a changing society in which they could be equal partners with men. Furthermore, she assumed that integrating the sexes in school would allow them to genuinely know each other, which would result in greater trust.

    Having analyzed the literature for and against sex segregation in education, Benning concluded optimistically that "... co-education not only makes the economic independence of women possible, but it also helps mold social opinion in favor."(5) Unfortunately, what seemed theoretically plausible when Benning was conducting her research has not occurred; the sexes remain very much segregated in the contemporary labor force.

    The optimism of those who favored the move to co-education was premature. What went wrong? Why has co-education not led to equality of the sexes? Have there been unexpected draw-backs?

     The issue of co-education vs. single-sex education for girls has had relatively little attention in Canada. The American case illustrates a correlation between attending women's colleges and achieving in society. Women's colleges have a faculty - student ratio double that of their co-educational counterparts and thus provide female role-models.(6)

     Because there are no males on campus to compete for positions of power (newspaper editor, officials of student government), women will either experience these positions themselves, or will at least see others in leadership positions. Students who attend selective women's colleges are twice as likely to receive Ph.D s than graduates of co-educational colleges.

    Could the findings about women's colleges and career aspirations hold true at the high school level for young Canadian women?

    The need for Canadian studies comparable to those conducted at American single-sex institutions is identified by Canadian educational historian and feminist scholar Margaret Gillet who writes:

"There are no comparable studies in Canada because there are now no separate colleges for women. Institutions founded in the 20th century were generally co-educational from the start and, soon after mid-century, even colleges administered by the nuns of the Catholic Church had become co-educational. That change was part of the same trend which turned six of the Seven Sisters co-educational.

     At the time, it seemed like a very good thing but this judgment may need reassessing. With these ironic twists and turns of history, it may just be that the blessing of co-education is a mixed one."(8)

Both European and American scholars are taking a second look at the single-sex education option for women. Perhaps girls schools are not passe and play an important role in preparing women to compete on an equal basis with men in the labor force. This idea merits more attention from Canadian scholars.

Doris O'Keefe is assistant director of the English Adult Education Campus at College Marie-Victorin in Montreal.

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